Is This Leading Suicide Prevention Organization a Front for Big Pharma?

Sep 13 2016

Is This Leading Suicide Prevention Organization a Front for Big Pharma?

September 14th, 2016

If you think you have been hearing a lot about suicide recently, it is not your imagination. The week of September 5-11 was declared National Suicide Prevention Week by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). According to its website, AFSP is the “leading national not-for-profit organization dedicated to understanding and preventing suicide.” Yet due to its Pharma relationships and continued Pharma funding, it could be argued that it is dedicated to profiting from suicide.

How does the group allegedly profit from suicides? Its emphasis on “screenings” and “interventions” to get possibly suicidal people into “treatment” greatly enlarges the patient pool for expensive psychiatric drugs.

Like other groups accused of being Pharma fronts, it literally sells the fear of depression, mental illness and suicide to people who may be fine and asserts that “stigma” and “barriers” to treatment (e.g., drugs) are causing suicides. As with Pharma campaigns to convince people they are “depressed” and need pills, many emotional states have external causes like relationship, job and money problems and are not “mental illness.”

Stopping suicide seems like such a worthy cause that few dissect AFSP’s actual messaging. Yet it is illogical and insulting. First, with as much as a quarter of some US demographics (for example, women) on antidepressants and ads for them ubiquitous, there is hardly lack of “awareness” of depression and suicide, or “stigmas” or “barriers” to treatment. There is arguably more of a stigma for not taking antidepressants if you are depressed.

Secondly, do people who are depressed and suicidal really need Pharma and its “interventions” and quizzes to know it?

Finally, while the drugs that treat depression and prevent suicide (usually SSRI antidepressants) are helpful sometimes, they can also cause the very suicides they are supposed to prevent—a fact rarely acknowledged in AFSP materials, if ever.

In 2005, after meeting with parents whose children killed themselves on the drugs and public health officials, the FDA attached the following “Black Box” warning to SSRI antidepressants:

“Antidepressants increased the risk compared to placebo of suicidal thinking and behavior (suicidality) in children, adolescents, and young adults in short-term studies of major depressive disorder (MDD) and other psychiatric disorders. Anyone considering the use of PAXIL [one SSRI] or any other antidepressant in a child, adolescent, or young adult must balance this risk with the clinical need. Patients of all ages who are started on antidepressant therapy should be monitored appropriately and observed closely for clinical worsening, suicidality, or unusual changes in behavior. Families and caregivers should be advised of the need for close observation and communication with the prescriber.”


Who Are AFSP?

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a non-profit organization dedicated to “understanding and preventing suicide through research, education and advocacy,” founded in 1987, is steeped in Pharma money.

In 2008, AFSP merged with the Suicide Prevention Action Network USA or SPAN which had announced in 2004 that “SPAN USA’s efforts to develop and expand its suicide survivor network received a major boost with a recent grant from Eli Lilly and Company Foundation,” and “The foundation generously provided funding to support training, education and collaborative opportunities for SPAN USA’s existing network and enable further expansion into all 50 states.” No lack of transparency there.

In AFSP’s 2009 report, its leading donors were Pharma companies and it attributes a new screening project to “funding from Eli Lilly and Co., Janssen, Solvay Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Wyeth Pharmaceuticals.” It also credits Eli Lilly for printing its brochures. No lack of transparency there, either.

In 2011, AFSP appointed psychiatrist Charles Nemeroff president of the organization until his troubles began. Nemeroff became the subject of a congressional inquiry and was found to have so much unreported Pharma income that the $9.3 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to study depression that he managed was suspended—something which rarely happens. He left Emory University in disgrace.

A 1999 textbook written by Nemeroff and his colleague Alan Schatzberg was found, in 2010, to be written and funded by GlaxoSmithKline. Both Nemeroff and Schatzberg remain at AFSP and are termed “leaders” of the organization.

AFSP’s 2012 annual report reveals a $100,000 donation from Forest Laboratories, and donations from Eli Lilly, Pfizer and five other Pharma companies.

“AFSP also boasts the honor of having a former president—David Shaffer—who was responsible for leading the development of the now somewhat infamous TeenScreen,” writes Mad in America. “TeenScreen is a controversial tool that Marcia Angell (Harvard Professor and former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine)…described as, “just a way to put more people on prescription drugs.

The now-defunct TeenScreen, which screened young people for early signs of depression had “ties to the pharmaceutical industry,” reported the Scientific American.

Screening and intervention are widely accepted now to be nothing but sales tools—even to the mainstream medical establishment. In How We Do Harm, Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical and scientific officer of the American Cancer Society and an oncologist, devotes a chapter to how prostate screening is often done for money—sometimes with disastrous results, including, in one chilling account, death.

This year’s AFSP annual report names Pharma companies Sunovion, Janssen, Forest, Pfizer and Otsuka America Pharmaceuticals as financial donors. AFSP also named Phil Satow, former Forest executive, to its Project 2025 Advisory Committee. Satow has worked for many Pharma companies and is co-founder and board chair of the very pro-drug JED Foundation.


Not Helping Our Troops

In this year’s annual report, AFSP claims it is addressing the high level of suicides in the military and lobbying for anti-suicide legislation. Yet AFSP, like many drug-funded researchers who have addressed military suicides, ignores the elephant in the room: Military personnel are typically young people, in just the age-range at which SSRIs can be most suicide-inducing—and droves have been put on SSRIs.

At the peak of the suicides in 2010, one in six service members was on a psychoactive drug, said Military Times, and “many troops are taking more than one kind, mixing several pills in daily ‘cocktails’ for example, an antidepressant with an antipsychotic to prevent nightmares, plus an anti-epileptic to reduce headaches—despite minimal clinical research testing such combinations.”

At one point, 4,994 troops at Fort Bragg were on antidepressants. Before psychoactive drug advertising, it would be unlikely the military would even accept someone on antidepressants, considering the stresses of war.

Suicide increased more than 150 percent in the Army and more than 50 percent in the Marine Corps between 2001 to 2009, reported Military Times, displaying (in a print edition) graphs of the suicide and prescription drug increases that bear a remarkable similarity. During that time, according to TRICARE data, 73,103 prescriptions for Zoloft had been dispensed to troops, 38,199 for Prozac, 17,830 for Paxil and 12,047 for Cymbalta—all of which carry suicide warnings, especially for young people.

Further suggesting that excessive SSRI prescriptions in active duty personnel—not a “barrier to treatment” or “stigma”—are the likely cause of the shocking suicide rates is the fact that, according to the Army, 85 percent of the soldiers who killed themselves had not seen combat and many had not even deployed. Clearly, they were not suffering from combat stress or head trauma from explosions.

Like AFSP, the military drug use was clearly linked to Pharma. While serving in the US Army Surgeon General’s Office as a psychiatry consultant, Elspeth Ritchie appeared in a webcast funded by AstraZeneca and Eli Lilly. The reasons for the suicides, she said in the webcast, were access to guns and “dear John” letters!

No one asked her how her explanation applied to suicides among the non-deployed.


Preventing Suicides or Causing Them?

Both the use of SSRIs and suicide are at an all-time high. While it cannot be deduced that the drugs are causing the deaths, it can easily be suspected they are not helping much, if at all.

While SSRIs are certainly useful in some depressions, they can be highly dangerous in the young people who not only make up active duty troops but who are the target of AFSP’s many campus-oriented “interventions.”

To nowhere acknowledge that SSRIs (or “mental health treatment,” as AFSP euphemistically puts it) can cause suicide, especially in young people, is shockingly unethical—even criminal.

Martha Rosenberg is a freelance journalist covering the pharmaceutical industry. Her last piece for The Influence was “You Won’t Believe the Outrageous Ways Big Pharma Has Bribed Doctors to Shill Drugs.” You can follow her on Twitter: @MarthRosenberg.

  • Absolutely. And what’s really sad and ironic is that these organizations were founded by people whose own children died of suicide or drug addiction – yet they promote ‘treatments’ that only make the problem worse. E.g. Norm Ornstein who recently wrote an opinion for the NYT – “How to Help Save the Mentally Ill From Themselves.” They are sacrificing their own children. I think it’s abominable!

    Also the Clinton Foundation is a similar racket – undermine the social fabric to get people infected with HIV – then provide ‘cheap’ HIV medications. Big Pharma is laughing all the way to the bank.

  • Jeremy K Galloway

    I’ve volunteered with AFSP. I know lots of folks who have lost loved ones to suicide and who volunteer much of their with the organization. There are problems with AFSP’s operations, how they’re funded, and how the organization functions. It’s ridiculous, however, to suggest there’s little or no stigma against suicide or that barriers to treatment for depression–and other mental health issues which contribute to suicide–don’t exist. They do. I’ve experienced them firsthand. In many ways, in fact, there’s more stigma in the US against suicide than there is against substance use disorders and mental illness.

    In doing research on overdoses and overdose deaths, I’ve found it’s incredibly difficult to distinguish between unintentional and intentional overdoses. This is partially due to the fact that many families prefer to have their loved one’s death recorded as an accidental overdose rather than a suicide. Suicide is still a taboo topic in many corners of American culture. Self-harm and suicide are issues that need to be talked about and people who need it should have access to help on demand. Sometimes that requires medication.

    I’ve been living with mental illness for over two decades. In that time I’ve experienced depression, suicidal ideation, and at least one half-assed suicide attempt. It’s only within the last few years that I was able to get (somewhat) effective treatment. It took so long because of 1) stigma, which discouraged me from seeking help, 2) lack of education–I didn’t know there were treatments available for the symptoms I was living with, and 3) inaccessibility of treatment. Even once I was able to afford insurance and found professional care, locating a doctor with whom I’m comfortable and who has experience dealing with my combination of mental health issues is incredibly difficult.

    The author does touch on some important issues here. How non-profits are funded is a major problem, one which creates massive conflicts of interest that extend well beyond AFSP. These organizations are part of our capitalist economy–they’re businesses. As such, they’re subject to the same “grow or die” imperative as private companies. They require more and more money each year to stay afloat. They have to hire executive directors with experience raising money for non-profits and little experience (or even interest) in the issues the organizations were created to address. And, of course, grant funding comes from those with money, power, and influence.

    I also get the sense that this is another critique of “Big Pharma” which tosses people who require medications under the bus. I’ve felt almost as much stigma from certain quarters for taking medication as I did for using street drugs. Without medication there’s no way I’d be able to be productive–or even get out of bed some days. We’re placed in the unfortunate position of depending on companies which exploit us, push medications we frequently don’t need, and are almost never held accountable for their actions. But that’s the system we live in. “Big Pharma” is a product of capitalism. So is the ‘non-profit industrial complex’.

    There are great people doing vital work at AFSP. We need them raising awareness about suicide and working to provide access to treatment for people who need it. Pointing out the structural problems inherent to large non-profits can be useful, but pretending that stigma against people touched by suicide or depression doesn’t exist or that there aren’t major barriers to effective treatment is quite possibly as harmful as the behavior the author is criticizing to begin with.

  • Tori

    I have participated in 5 of the AFSP’s national walks, 9 of their local walks in my state, several local fundraisers, attended one of their national conferences, attended many local educational events they hosted, and served on a local board in memory of my brother. I am also a CPA. This article does not reflect what I have seen over the last 9 years that I have had some involvement with the AFSP. The article points out 5 donations by pharmaceutical companies but if you look at the annual report that is pulled from there are several hundred donors listed and scanning the names you can easily tell there are donations from all kinds of well recognized companies that are not related to the pharmaceutical industry along with lots of individual donors. The article mentions a $100,000 donation which sounds substantial but the AFSP revenue on the 2014 tax return is $16,000,000 which makes $100,000 a tiny contribution in my eyes. Nearly every volunteer that I encountered with the AFSP was there because they lost a loved one to suicide and/or dealt with mental health issues themselves and I saw the work that went into fundraising from thousands of people walking and fundraising all over the country. If the donations from pharmaceutical companies was so significant to the total revenues, there would be no need to dedicate so much effort and expense to fundraising walks all over the country. To pull out those few donors, I don’t see how the author could not have noticed that there were several hundred other donors so it is either sloppy or intentionally misleading. The AFSP website also lists over 150 scientific advisors that are primarily from universities all over the country. This is why I feel good about donating to the AFSP and soliciting donations when I do the walks because I know they are concerned with research and science not wild speculation. I am grateful to see that the stigma around suicide and mental health has improved some in the 9 years since my brother died but I hate to see articles like this that increase the stigma for the people who do need medication for mental health issues. I understand this is labelled “opinion” but I am disappointed to see this article on your website and it will make me more skeptical of other articles on your page in the future.

  • painkills2

    There’s no doubt that antidepressants are over-prescribed, especially off-label and to women. Doctors have no problem prescribing these drugs, even though they mostly work for those who suffer from Major Depressive Disorder.

    In the 1980s, doctors would only prescribe antidepressants to treat chronic pain. I’ve tried almost all of them. Funny, many of them actually made me depressed, and none of them had any effect on my pain. Now with the opioid war, we’re traveling back in time, back to the 1980s again. Antidepressants for everyone!

    What’s the difference between corporations funding medical research and advocacy groups and the government doing the same? For decades, government has only funded research that aligns with the drug war. Agencies like the FDA and CDC make decisions based on political bias and corporate support, not scientific evidence. At least with Big Pharma, we know it’s all about the money.

    Big Pharma is not evil. It’s just trying to make money in our capitalistic society. The government is also trying to make money — it’s just like a corporation. They both provide jobs. While it may appear that the government is more accountable to us than corporations, they both get away with murder.

  • SwaziX

    Anti-depressants are poison and should never have been accepted by the medical profession. They cause suicide – not “suicidality” , not “suicidal thoughts and actions” but SUICIDE. Why do we accept the euphemisms printed on the warning label as something other than what it states – that these highly-profitable chemicals increase the risk of the patient killing themselves in many instances? Are we so brainwashed that we can’t connect the industry-approved “suicidal actions” with the act of taking our own lives?

    “First Do No Harm” – an antiquated sentiment no longer important enough for mainstream physicians to adhere to in the face of the mountains of cash most of them choose over the actual health and well being of their patients. Even worse, many physicians might not dig deep enough to learn exactly why SSRIs are deadly to us.

    Serotonin Poisoning is likely the cause of many (most?) suicides involving those on multiple SSRI chemicals – these poisons, rebranded as “medicine”, can block too many serotonin receptors in our bodies, resulting in too much serotonin in our blood. This effectively derails a lot of critical thinking, logic, and other normal thought processes – and many times this confusion and doubt about your own sanity is what pushes these poor trusting souls to end their lives.

    The FDA is owned, EPA, NIH, Dept. of Health and Human Services – all these (and many more) of our government departments are now arms of this or that private/corporate business beholding to shareholders as God, using the wretched dollar as their sacrament. Nowhere (other than the pandering blather of sales-pitches and weak, baseless assurances of safety) does our real health or safety matter to these faceless, immune-to-logic monolithic government agencies.

    When us oldsters were growing up, most doctors could still be trusted – they had yet to be lured into cutting corners with their patients’ health by the financial benefits offered to them by Big Pharma (in fact, back then pharma wasn’t that big). Since then we’ve had a B-actor as president (two terms), Austrian idiot-bodybuilder as Gov. of California, a frat-boy moron president (two terms), the first black president (who forgot ALL pre-election promises once he got the job) and now – a circus huckster neck and neck with a(nother) natural-born liar owned by Monsanto in line to be president.

    The modern-day Death Wish is lived by all who completely and utterly trust their physician to do the right thing for their health. You will be filled with barely-tested chemicals called “medicine”, then a few years after you die from this “care” some of those poisons will be recalled due to “safety concerns”.

  • Kristina Kaiser Gehrki

    AFSP is not doing all that it can and should do to protect and promote public health. I know this from personal experience.

    My nineteen-year-old daughter died from prescription-drug induced “suicide” after a doctor prescribed a SSRI (Zoloft). The doctor said my daughter was “NOT depressed” and was given Zoloft for “OCD-like symptoms” surrounding diet and exercise. My child never received a specific diagnosis.

    We did not know Zoloft and any dose changes could cause her death. We trusted her doctor, a doctor who never provided us with Informed Consent nor informed us of the symptoms of life-threatening adverse drug reactions (ADRs) called Serotonin Toxicity and Akathisia.

    Two days later, my child was dead. Medical experts determined she suffered Zoloft-induced Serotonin Toxicity, psychosis, and akathisia. These ADRs often cause suicidal thoughts and actions. My teen’s death and millions of others are more accurately called prescripticides.

    I called AFSP chief medical officer, and we discussed my daughter’s prescribed demise and death. I asked AFSP to educate the public about the risks vs. benefits of the drugs they promote. We discussed improving Informed Consent laws so that consumers and caregivers can be well educated and better identify drug-induced suicidality before avoidable deaths occur.

    It’s been three years since my personal conversation with AFSP’s medical officer. Little has changed in AFSP’s publications and website–except that AFSP publicly lobbied to REMOVE the FDA Black Box warning that was created to help protect children and young adults from prescribed suicidality.

    There is no “walk to end prescripticide” and no “walk to publicize fatal adverse drug reactions.” Nevertheless, I hope one day AFSP will “walk their talk” to protect our most vulnerable citizens from such avoidable deaths. Children and the elderly are often at higher risk of ADRs, as are those who do not have the enzymes needed to destroy SSRI drugs. AFSP has an ethical responsibility to adequately communicate these drug risks vs. benefits and share unbiased research with the public it professes to serve.

  • Maurice Dutton

    The main reason they decided to manufacture their own poisons is simply the fact that the patent for MDMA had expired and therefore the profits would be greatly diminished. So big pharma decided to make their own anti depressants and marketed their own brands aggressively. The stats for people who have died while taking this medication that the doctors usually push onto the patient are astounding. My doctor prescribed a brand with a 200mg dose for me and after taking the medication once I returned the rest to him explaining what had happened to me and to not be so quick to write this shit. He argued with me for some time until I eventually told him I would rather be in charge of my own self medication. All this for some pre exam anxiety.

  • Robert

    Those people at these Suicide Prevention Organizations are Blood Suckers Praying on peoples Emotions to Suck there Money . Designed by the CDC Organized Disease Mongers Healthcare System Designed to make you sick ,dope you up. Pharmaceutical Companies Controling Medical Examiners offices across the country Falsifying Medical records Dumping Tens of thousands of body’s every year no investigations . Healthcare System of DEATH .

  • Robert

    Doctors the Predators and We are the Pray ,Suck your Blood eat your Flesh , Pharmaceutical Industry immune from Prosecution . Healthcare System of theives and Con artists , Modern day Cannibalism .