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Santa Fe Reporter
Published: March 5, 2008
Lawmakers tackle biopolar/antidepressant controversy.
When Brokeback Mountain star Heath Ledger was found dead of an overdose on the floor of his SoHo flat, one could have expected a national dialogue to emerge on whether America is suffering from cultural over-medication.
Sarina Cuoco’s suicide turned her mother into an activist.
But as coroners determined that a combination of antidepressants and prescription-strength painkillers may have caused the 28-year-old Australian’s death, the media instead turned to speculation on Ledger’s vague relationship with former child star Mary-Kate Olsen.
In New Mexico, however, Ledger’s name was invoked in the rooms of the Roundhouse as Senate committees debated a bill to study the correlation between antidepressants and suicidal behavior. Specifically, Senate Memorial 9, which passed on Feb. 8, targets cavalier prescription practices among New Mexico’s medical community.
While Ledger’s death may have pushed SM 9 past the finish line, the legislative effort began in October 2007 during the days after a 21-year-old Albuquerque woman, Sarina Cuoco, committed suicide. She, too, had been prescribed a cocktail of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication.
On the memorial Web site (iloveyousarina21.last-memories.com) for Cuoco, her mother, Camille Milke, explains that she found six different pills in her daughter’s home, all of which were allegedly prescribed within the month by a nurse practitioner whose daughter had acted as Cuoco’s therapist.
“The day after my daughter died, I promised her that I’d get her voice heard,” Milke tells SFR. “I promised her that I was going to spend my life bringing down everybody who brought her to her demise: the nurse practitioner, her therapist, Walgreens and all the drug companies.”
Milke is planning a class-action lawsuit and criminal complaints, but almost immediately after Cuoco’s death she identified the 2008 legislative session as a target. She inundated lawmakers and the press with e-mails (since Jan. 1, SFR received 103 unique e-mails) and Sen. Joe Carraro, R-Bernalillo, who carried SM 9, says he had to ask her to step back and let the legislative cycle work. Yet, he adds, by the end of the session, hardly a lawmaker in the Roundhouse wasn’t aware of “Sarina’s Voice,” the informal organization formed by Milke and her husband, Brian Milke.
“These drugs certainly do help some people, but clearly, there are too many of these drugs being prescribed,” Carraro says. “The mind is a mysterious and fragile part of our body and we have to be very careful what we do that will affect the emotions and capability to discern reality.”
SM 9 calls for the New Mexico Health Policy Commission to convene a task force to determine if there is a correlation between antidepressants and suicidal behavior. The task force will ultimately decide whether to recommend changing the law to require mandatory continuing education for anyone who prescribes antidepressants.
For now, Milke says she’s satisfied with the legislation.
“Today is 122 days since my daughter took her life,” she says. “I think we’ve gotten a lot done in that time that a lot of other people have done in a matter of years. I mean, it’s absolutely huge, but I will continue working on trying to abolish suicide-causing antidepressants until the day I die.”
The question of whether antidepressants may cause suicidal behavior has been a matter of controversy for more than 30 years. Some doctors and pharmaceutical companies deny any causality.
In 2005, the Federal Drug Administration decided to require certain antidepressants be packaged with “black box” warnings about suicide risks among children and adolescent patients. Last year the FDA strengthened its position, calling for warnings on all antidepressants.
Suicide-prevention advocate Gail Griffith was living in Santa Fe when she wrote Will’s Choice about her teenage son’s attempted antidepressant overdose. She’s pleased to learn of the legislation but, as a consumer representative on the FDA’s Psychopharmacological Drugs Advisory Committee and a board member of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, she says she can’t back Milke’s call for a full ban on antidepressants. Nor can Griffith support Milke’s advocacy of “natural remedies.”
“People have this unfounded faith in natural products,” Griffith says.
“Depression is a serious illness. You wouldn’t pooh-pooh chemo or radiation if you were treating cancer, so I don’t think it’s fair to suggest there aren’t pharmacological remedies that are applicable.”
After her success in New Mexico, Milke says she’s taking on Congress, particularly Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill, who have signed on to legislation that could potentially expand the use of antidepressants to treat postpartum depression.
“It’s hard to get people to take us seriously because they instantly say, ‘You know what? You should go to therapy,’” Milke says. “Yeah, OK. Well, that helped my daughter a whole lot, didn’t it? I’ll go to therapy and they’ll put me on antidepressants.”
© Copyright 2000-2008 by the Santa Fe Reporter
[Note: If the New Mexico Health Policy Commission ever convened a task force to deal with antidepressant suicidality it is nowhere to be found in 2018 and Camille Milke’s domain name for her website is for sale – SSRIstories Ed]