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By Jeremy Laurance Health Editor
Thursday 05 June 2003
An expert on toxic chemicals told an inquest yesterday how he found his wife’s body after she had committed suicide while taking the antidepressant drug Prozac.
Alastair Hay, the Professor of Environmental Toxicology at Leeds University, wiped away tears as he told Leeds coroner’s court how, after his wife’s death, he started investigating links between Prozac use and suicidal thoughts.
Mrs Hay, 52, had suffered a recurrence of depression that first struck in 1998 when she was treated with Prozac. When the depression returned last August she was again prescribed the drug, but it failed to lift her depression and her condition deteriorated.
A few weeks later she tried to drown herself in the river Wharfe. On 17 September, she hanged herself in the garage of the couple’s home near Otley, West Yorkshire.
Professor Hay told the coroner he was looking into the role of Prozac in his wife’s illness and whether the standard one-a-day 20mg dose was too much for some people.
David Healey, the director of the North Wales Department of Psychological Medicine, said Prozac probably contributed to the suicide of Mrs Hay, who was a librarian and researcher.
The combination of some clinical studies of Prozac and records of Mrs Hay’s case had led him to conclude that the drug was a factor in her suicide. “She wasn’t taking her own life with the usual intent. This drug can make healthy people who aren’t remotely thinking of suicide suicidal,” he said.
Asked what measures should be taken to prevent such tragedies, he said stronger warnings should be issued on the possible side-effects of Prozac.
Pressed by counsel for Professor Hay to say whose responsibility it should be to warn about side-effects, Dr Healey, a prominent critic of Prozac and similar antidepressant drugs, added: “I believe the pharmaceutical company, who in effect willed this drug into the world, have the primary responsibility.”
The court was told that Mrs Hay first developed clinical depression at the end of 1998. Her husband – an expert on chemical and biological warfare – said that a number of events could have triggered her illness, including an incident in which she tried to help two motorcyclists who died in a traumatic accident outside her home.
Mrs Hay was put on Prozac for the first time during a short stay in hospital. She came off the drug two years later when her symptoms improved. The court was told that she was put back on the drug last August after her clinical depression recurred. Her weight at that time had fallen to six stone (39kg).
Professor Hay told the inquest that his wife became insecure and developed a lack of self-worth; during therapy she would draw pictures of her brain buzzing and, often, exploding. “A recurring theme had developed of her perceived inability to cope,” he said.
He suggested his wife’s capacity to metabolise Prozac could have changed and that the 20mg dose that was prescribed for her could have been excessive. Blood levels of the drug should be measured and doses needed to be right for patients, he said. “It’s possible that if a person is given a standard dose, that might be too much for them.”
Eli Lilly, the manufacturers of Prozac, issued a statement saying: “There is no credible scientific evidence that establishes a causal connection between Prozac and violent or suicidal behaviour.”
The inquest continues.