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Could meds be responsible for some suicides?

Mar. 17, 2010 - 12:13PM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 17, 2010 - 12:13PM  |  
It remains unclear whether Ryan Alderman, above, intended to take his life — and, if so, whether the drugs he was on contributed to that decision.
It remains unclear whether Ryan Alderman, above, intended to take his life — and, if so, whether the drugs he was on contributed to that decision. (COURTESY OF TIM ALDERMAN)
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Doctors at Fort Carson, Colo., released Pfc. Ryan Alderman from a military psychiatric ward with a stack of prescriptions for antidepressants, anticonvulsants and antipsychotics.

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Doctors at Fort Carson, Colo., released Pfc. Ryan Alderman from a military psychiatric ward with a stack of prescriptions for antidepressants, anticonvulsants and antipsychotics.

A week later, the troubled soldier added to that cocktail some drugs he wasn't prescribed — painkillers and Valium.

And early on the morning of Nov. 20, 2008, the 21-year-old was found dead in his barracks.

An autopsy ruled his death a suicide — one of at least 128 the Army reported in 2008. But his father disagrees and thinks the death may have been an accidental overdose.

"They had him in a stupor where he could hardly talk. He was slurring his words. What killed him was all those drugs they gave him," said Tim Alderman, who visited the Fort Carson psychiatric hospital a week before his son died.

It remains unclear whether Ryan Alderman intended to take his life — and, if so, whether the drugs he was on contributed to that decision.

"He'd talked about suicide, but I don't think that's what he did here," the elder Alderman said. "I think it was accidental."

Such deaths fuel criticisms of psychiatric drugs in general and military psychiatry in particular.

"I feel flat out that psychiatrists are directly responsible for deaths in our military, for some of these suicides," said retired Col. Bart Billings, a former Army psychologist. "I think it's criminal, what they are doing."

Billings, who testified Feb. 24 before Congress on the topic, believes the military's spike in suicides over the past few years directly correlates with the types and quantities of psychotropic medications often prescribed for post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychiatric problems.

Federal regulators have studied such suicide concerns extensively:

* In May 2007, the Food and Drug Administration ordered all antidepressants to carry a "black box" warning about the increased risk for suicide or suicidal thoughts in adults ages 18 to 24.

* In February 2008, the FDA said anticonvulsants double the risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior, though it stopped short of requiring drug makers to put a "black box" warning on the drugs.

* Neurontin, one of the military's top-selling psychiatric drugs over the past decade, is the subject of a series of lawsuits filed against its manufacturer, Pfizer, alleging that the drug directly caused suicides. None of those cases has gone to trial.

The number of military suicide victims who may have been taking antidepressants or anticonvulsants is unclear. The Army repeatedly has denied a Military Times Freedom of Information Act request for that data.

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