By Dr. Peter Breggin
A Syracuse, N.Y. jury has awarded a $1.5 million medical malpractice verdict to the family of a man who committed suicide. I was the medical expert for the family. After the verdict, plaintiff’s attorney Ernest DelDuchetto told me, “It was comforting to see a jury agree with our proposition that these drugs (antidepressants) are not panaceas for all sadness,” and that they can have serious harmful effects.
Suicide malpractice suits are notoriously difficult to win. Juries, like most people, want to hold individuals responsible for their self-destructive behavior. They are reluctant to blame a suicide on a drug or on a doctor’s negligent behavior.
Many years ago, I used to believe that people must be held responsible for their own behavior under all conditions, but my philosophical beliefs were eventually eroded by the mountain of scientific evidence that I developed through my research and clinical experience indicating that psychiatric drugs can indeed drive people to suicide. This scientific reality is now enshrined in black-box warnings in the FDA-approved labels for many drugs, including all antidepressants, all anticonvulsants, and individual medications like the ADHD drug Strattera (atomoxetine) and the smoking aid Chantix (varenicline).
Because of difficulties in evaluating and in winning suicide malpractice suits, I looked very carefully at the case of Joseph Mazella when it was sent to me for my expert opinion by attorney DelDuchetto. Mr. Mazella was a 51-year-old revered high school basketball coach, teacher and assistant principal; and his self-inflicted death was unexpected and shocking to those who knew him and to the Syracuse community.
In addition to the potential hazards of the antidepressants themselves, including Paxil (paroxetine) and then Effexor (venlafaxine), I found that a glaring negligence had been committed in the case. Family physician William Beals, M.D., who had a reputation for treating psychiatric and addiction patients, had prescribed Paxil for Mr. Mazella for 10 years without seeing him. When Mr. Mazella began to feel anxious and depressed again, on Aug. 9, 2009 he and his wife telephoned the doctor, who was reportedly on vacation on Cape Cod. Despite having no contact with the patient for a decade, by telephone Dr. Beals doubled his Paxil from 20 mg to 40 mg and added the antipsychotic drug, Zyprexa (olanzapine). This began an escalating decline in his mental condition that ended a little more than one month later with his suicide.
After reviewing extensive records and interviewing Mr. Mazella’s wife Janice, I concluded that Dr. Beals was negligent in reportedly prescribing Paxil for 10 years without seeing the patient, in failing to warn the patient and his wife about the serious risks associated with Paxil, in his doubling the Paxil dose and adding Zyprexa by telephone, and then in abandoning the patient during his decline. I also concluded that a hospital psychiatrist was negligent in not recognizing that Mr. Mazella was suffering from adverse drug effects and in discharging him without proper followup two weeks before his death.
I later learned that I was not the only one critical of Dr. Beals. The NYS Board for Professional Medical Conduct has placed him on probation for prescribing for patients without seeing them, and has also disciplined him for personally abusing alcohol and drugs.
In trial I testified for a day and a half concerning how antidepressant drugs including Paxil and Effexor can increase suicide risk in adults, and also my opinion of how the behavior of the two doctors contributed to or caused the tragic outcome.
On Nov. 21, 2012 the jury found both doctors negligent, but concluded that only Dr. Beals’ acts had contributed to or caused Mr. Mazella’s suicide. The jury awarded his wife and three children $1.5 million.
This courtroom victory is consistent with a change that I have been witnessing in my media and public appearances, and in my communications with professionals and laypersons around the world. People are becoming increasingly aware that psychiatric drugs are capable of doing more harm than good, including potentially increasing the risk of violence and suicide. Unfortunately, the medical profession, and especially psychiatry, has been slow to catch on. Hopefully this malpractice verdict will encourage my colleagues to take a closer look at their too often cavalier attitudes toward prescribing psychiatric drugs.
Follow up note: A New York State court recently overturned the verdict on the grounds that references during trial to Dr. Beals being previously censured by the NYS medical license authorities were not admissible. Dr. Breggin will be testifying again in the upcoming retrial.
Originally published in The Huffington Post.