By Citizens Commission on Human Rights International, Special for USDR
Despite highly touted efforts to curb the suicide rate among active-duty service members and veterans, suicides remain high and the mental health watchdog Citizens Commission on Human Rights International (CCHR) says the Armed Forces and Veterans Affairs need to fully investigate the role of prescription psychotropic drugs in these suicides.
CCHR says an investigation of this link should not be limited to those committing suicide by drug overdose but also determine whether those killing themselves by gunshot, hanging or by other methods were taking or withdrawing from psychotropic drugs at the time. It should be a focal part of the Veterans Affairs commitment of more than $186 millionin 2018 to prevent suicide, CCHR adds.
Earlier this year, the Pentagon reported that 265 active-duty service members killed themselves in 2015, continuing a trend of unusually high suicide rates that have plagued the U.S. military for at least seven years, according to USA Today. The number of suicides among troops was 145 in 2001 and began a steady increase until more than doubling to 321 in 2012 .
Suicide—not combat—is the leading killer of U.S. troops deployed to the Middle East to fight Islamic State militants, the Pentagon statistics showed.
But according to CCHR and experts working with it, there are serious concerns about the relationship between military/veteran suicides and the increase of psychotropic drug prescriptions. According to Dr. Bart Billings, a retired Colonel and Medical Service Corps Officer in the U.S. Army, a surge of prescriptions since 2005 “coincides with the gradual increase, to this day, of suicides in the military. I feel there’s a direct relationship,” Billings told CNS News.
In 2014, CCHR presented evidence of this to the U.S. Senate’s Veteran Affairs Committee calling, then, for an inquiry into the potential violence- and suicide-inducing effects of prescribed psychiatric drugs.
That submission reported:
- More than 110,000 Army personnel were given antidepressants, narcotics, sedatives, antipsychotics and anti-anxiety drugs while on duty in one year.
- Between 2005 and 2011 the military increased its prescriptions of psychoactive drugs (antipsychotics, sedatives, stimulants and mood stabilizers) by almost 700 percent, according to The New York Times.
- 92.8 percent of the Service Members who committed suicide were male, with 39.6 percent aged between 17 and 24.
- Antidepressants prescribed Service Members and veterans carry a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “black-box” warning of “suicidality” for those younger than 25.
- The age range of 41 percent of deployed American soldiers was 18-24. Those prescribed antidepressants are at serious risk of suicide, given the black box warning.
- Further, an average of 20 veterans a day committed suicide in 2014.
The situation has not changed, with it being reported in March this year that the Defense Suicide Prevention Office says that most who die by suicide in the military are younger than 30. About 68 percent die by the use of firearms, and almost 25 percent by hanging.
In October 2016, The Pharmaceutical Journal reported that even healthy adults who are taking certain antidepressants have a higher risk of suicidal thoughts and violent behavior, according to the results of a systematic review. “While it is now generally accepted that antidepressants increase the risk of suicide and violence in children and adolescents (although many psychiatrists still deny this), most people believe that these drugs are not dangerous for adults. This is a potentially lethal misconception,” warned the researchers, based at the Nordic Cochrane Centre and the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.
Writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, the team said: “We found that antidepressants double the risk of suicidality and violence, and it is particularly interesting that the volunteers in the studies we reviewed were healthy adults with no signs of a mental disorder.” The researchers say their results suggest that it is likely that antidepressants increase the number of suicides in people of all ages.
On May 25, 2017, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO-6) introduced H.R.2652, theVeteran Overmedication Prevention Act of 2017 into Congress. Thiscalls for a thorough and independent review of all suicides, violent deaths, and accidental deaths during a five-year period among veterans who received treatment furnished by the Department of Veteran Affairs during the five years leading up to their deaths. The review would be done by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine under an agreement with the VA.
CCHR says the legislation is a step in the right direction but points to the Department of Veterans Affairs saying it will increase spending on suicide prevention efforts by 7.5 percent to $186.1 million in 2018. And although a VA spokeswoman Gina Jackson calls this its “highest clinical priority,” CCHR says that spending on and use of psychotropic drugs that may be driving veterans to suicide must be part of that priority.
Add to this, Friedhelm Sandbrink, M.D., the VA’s Acting National Program Director for Pain Management, reported that up to 75 percent of older veterans experience chronic pain. Such pain may be treated with opioids which carry a risk for overuse or misuse. Complicating matters is additional psychotropic drugs being prescribed with opioids. Cocktails of opioids and benzodiazepines, for example, can be lethal. On August 31, 2016, the FDA announced that it was requiring changes to drug labeling, including patient information, to warn of the serious risks associated with the combined use of certain opioids and benzodiazepines. Risks include extreme sleepiness, respiratory depression, coma and death. “It is nothing short of a public health crisis when you see a substantial increase of avoidable overdose and death related to two widely used drug classes being taken together,” said FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, M.D.
CCHR International has presented annual Human Rights Awards to individuals and families fighting for better treatment and care for military members and veterans—free of the influence of potentially harmful psychotropic drugs and cocktails of drugs. An example of the Award Winners is:
- The parents of U.S. Marine Cpl Andrew R. White, 23, who died suddenly after being prescribed a “lethal cocktail of antidepressants, antipsychotics and analgesics,” his father Stan White said. Mr. White and his wife, Shirley, have worked tirelessly to warn about the dangers of such prescribing. Retired California neurologist Dr. Fred Baughman Jr. supported them saying he is convinced that military doctors are overprescribing antipsychotic medications in combinations that can cause cardiac arrest, often resulting in death. “The treatment of traumatized vets with psychiatric drugs is an enemy we never saw coming,” Mr. White said in accepting the Human Rights Award.
- All that Pat Mena’s youngest son, Anthony (Tony), wanted to do when he graduated High School was to defend his country by joining the Air Force. He was deployed twice to Iraq and managed to dodge bullets, rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs. But what he couldn’t dodge was the cocktail of psychiatric drugs he was prescribed upon his return. Like so many others returning from combat, Mena suffered from insomnia, restlessness and nightmares. He also complained of severe back pain. Between January of 2008 and his death in July 2009, Mena was prescribed no less than 35 prescription drugs, including numerous antidepressants, pain killers, tranquilizers and muscle relaxers. Mrs. Mena wrote of Anthony’s experience in the book You’ll Be Fine, Darling: Struggling with PTSD after the Trauma of War. In her acceptance of CCHR’s Award, she stated: “Tony would want me to say this to everyone. ‘When there is something wrong, you speak up.’ He would be grateful for a group like CCHR for speaking up and also being a voice for so many. Please keep telling people to question their doctors. Keep in mind that thousands of people have died from drug intoxication. On a beautiful summer morning, Tony lost the opportunity to ever see another sun rise again. Keep supporting CCHR so that as a united voice, you can ensure this never happens to others and their loved ones.”
- The Navy S.E.A.L. Foundation speaks of the S.E.A.L.’s rigorous physical training, mental discipline and innate force that ensure his place amongst “the pinnacle of elite warriors.” Former S.E.A.L, Mikal Vega, twice awarded the Bronze Star Medal with Valor and a 22-year combat veteran, survived numerous dangerous combat operations and deployments only to be nearly killed by the cocktail of painkillers and psychiatric drugs prescribed him by military doctors. “Veterans are killing themselves at a rate of 22 a day—one every 65 minutes. They say it’s because of the stresses of war, but 85 percent of military suicides never even saw combat. One in six American service members is on at least one psychiatric drug—antidepressants or powerful antipsychotics,” Vega stated. Speaking of CCHR’s Human Rights Award and the need to inform others about adverse effects of psychotropic drugs, Vega said that this award “will serve as a reminder of the lives lost that have spurred us to action, and of our unification under the umbrella of this common cause of saving lives through the dissemination of truth.”
- Dr. Bart Billings Ph.D. is also the founder and director of the International Military and Civilian Combat Stress Conference. He was one of the first military professionals to disclose the link between psychotropic drug use and military suicides and submitted testimony to the House Veterans Affairs Committee on the link between psychiatric drugs and veteran suicide in 2010. “Mental health cannot be achieved when one is given mind-altering drugs that directly interfere with their cognitive functioning, resulting in them being mentally incapable and, also in many situations, interfering with them meeting their basic human needs to survive,” according Dr. Billings. Dr. Billings book, Invisible Scars: How to Treat Combat Stress and PTSD without Medication, chronicles the VA & the Military’s decision to use brain/mind altering medications for residual effects of combat stress, why they do it, the effects on veterans/soldiers.
CCHR encourages anyone whose family member is in the military, or who is a veteran, to consult a medical doctor if there are concerns about psychotropic prescription practices and also report any abuse to CCHR.As a nonprofit, CCHR relies on memberships and donations to carry out its mission and actions to educate others about psychotropic drug use. It produced a public benefit documentary for the Armed Forces, veterans and families, The Hidden Enemy.
[i] “Number of military suicides still high, but help is on the rise,” Montgomery Advertiser, 10 Mar. 2017, http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com/story/news/2017/03/10/suicide-military-numbers-remain-high-help-rise/98195262/.
[ii] “Suicide kills more U.S. troops than ISIL in Middle East,” USA Today, 29 Dec. 2016, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2016/12/29/suicide-kills-more-us-troops-than-isil-middle-east/95961038/.
[iv]”A fog of drugs and war,” The Los Angeles Times, 7 Apr. 2013, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/apr/07/nation/la-na-army-medication-20120408/2.
[v] Richard A. Friedman, “War on Drugs,” The New York Times, 6 Apr 2013; http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/07/opinion/sunday/wars-on-drugs.html?ref=opinion&_r=0&gwh=7E028A441FC225E6745B9904CFDA2A92&gwt=pay.
[vi] “Radical increase in kids prescribed Ritalin,” WND, 1 Apr. 2013, http://www.wnd.com/2013/04/radical-increase-in-kids-prescribed-ritalin/#hQjxdxIizztQyRWY.99.
[vii] “Number of military suicides still high, but help is on the rise,” Montgomery Advertiser, 10 Mar. 2017,http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com/story/news/2017/03/10/suicide-military-numbers-remain-high-help-rise/98195262/.
[viii] “Number of military suicides still high, but help is on the rise,” Montgomery Advertiser, 10 Mar. 2017,http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com/story/news/2017/03/10/suicide-military-numbers-remain-high-help-rise/98195262/.
[ix] “Antidepressants associated with increased risk of suicidal thoughts in healthy adults,” The Pharmaceutical Journal, 17 Oct. 2016, http://www.pharmaceutical-journal.com/news-and-analysis/news/antidepressants-associated-with-increased-risk-of-suicidal-thoughts-in-healthy-adults/20201834.article.
[x] “Antidepressants associated with increased risk of suicidal thoughts in healthy adults,” The Pharmaceutical Journal, 17 Oct. 2016, http://www.pharmaceutical-journal.com/news-and-analysis/news/antidepressants-associated-with-increased-risk-of-suicidal-thoughts-in-healthy-adults/20201834.article.
[xiii] “Suicide rising in the military ranks, but some programs offer hope,” The Tennessean, 26 May 2017, http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/2017/05/26/suicide-rising-military-ranks-but-some-programs-offer-hope/339539001/.
[xiv]”Pain Management and Opioid Use with Veterans and Service Members,” 12 June 2017, https://newsletter.samhsa.gov/2017/06/12/opioid-pain-management-for-veterans-active-duty-military/.
[xv] “FDA requires strong warnings for opioid analgesics, prescription opioid cough products, and benzodiazepine labeling related to serious risks and death from combined use,” FDA Release, 31 Aug. 2016, https://www.fda.gov/newsevents/newsroom/pressannouncements/ucm518697.htm.
[xvi] “Couple continues battle after soldier son’s PTSD treatment-related death,” Charleston Gazette-Mail, 28 May 2012.
SOURCE Citizens Commission on Human Rights International