To the people behind the BBC Panorama show “A Prescription for Murder”,
I heard about the show before I watched it. On reading the description, I was appalled, but I was hopeful that my shock at the treatment of the topic you mentioned would be misplaced. From my reading of it on your website, you were stating a growing risk to users of SSRI medication becoming homicidal. I wish I was wrong.
On your website, you described your hour long examination of the subject saying:
“Is it possible that a pill prescribed by your doctor can turn you into a killer? Over 40 million prescriptions for SSRI anti-depressants were handed out by doctors last year in the UK. Panorama reveals the devastating side effects on a tiny minority that can lead to psychosis, violence, possibly even murder. With exclusive access to psychiatric reports, court footage and drug company data, reporter Shelley Jofre investigates the mass killings at the 2012 midnight premiere of a Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado. Twenty-four-year-old PhD student James Holmes, who had no record of violence or gun ownership, murdered 12 and injured 70. Did the SSRI anti-depressant he had been prescribed play a part in the killings? Panorama has uncovered other cases of murder and extreme violence which could be linked to psychosis developed after the taking of SSRIs – including a father who strangled his 11-year-old son. Panorama asks if enough is known about this rare side effect, and if doctors are unwittingly prescribing what could be a prescription for murder.”
So far, so tabloid. I was hoping to be proved wrong in watching your programme, but unfortunately, this was not the case. For the hour long show, there were a lot of “might” and “Maybe” responses from the medical professionals interviewed by Shelley Jofre. The only people who seemed sure without a doubt that these drugs were as dangerous as billed were your host and unqualified relatives of those involved in these tragic events. Jofre spent the entire hour pushing an agenda of fear towards the use of SSRIs. It was disappointing, to say the least.
I was under the impression that Public Service Broadcasting was supposed to be for the greater good. What good does a programme like this give to society? SSRI medication saves lives in many cases. Mine included. I have been taking Sertraline for the last three years, since my diagnosis with PostNatal Depression. At the time of my diagnosis, I was reluctant to turn to medication initially. It was with the support of my family, my partner and my doctor that I started a regimen of antidepressants. At the time I was in a fog of depression. I couldn’t see a light. It took a few weeks for the medications to kick in, but once they did it was like night and day. I started enjoying my son, being his mother, my life again. I stopped crying every time he cried. Sertraline stopped the dark, depressive thoughts and made it possible for me to live again. For that, I will be forever thankful.
Of course, my use of Sertraline has not been without consequence or side effect. Like many, I’ve discovered a new level of hot flashes, weight gain and loss of libido while taking them. However, the benefits far outweigh the cons in this situation. Sitting in front of the information leaflet tonight, I’m aware that “psychosis, aggression, suicidal thoughts” are all listed in the Rare Side Effects (less than 1 in 1000) section. These were all discussed with me at different stages of the last three years including the first appointment. They’re also in the same category as things like hiccups, cancer and sore mouth. To me, this would tend to indicate a rarity where “literally anything goes” is implied. The programme stated that in the case of Holmes, the shooter in Colorado, he did not mention his homicidal fantasies or feelings of violence to his doctors. At the time of the shooting, he had stopped taking the drugs. However, the thoughts of Jofre looking at the evidence were still that the drugs were definitely to blame. She referenced cases where parents killed children,
I hope so much that people will not watch this programme and worry, but I know that they will. While you stated a few times in the programme that it is unwise to change a medication regime without medical consultation, I don’t think that quite covers your responsibility to your viewership. There is enough stigma in our society about psychological disorders, about use of antidepressants and medications to manage mood. It is a conversation which is only just after starting to become audible above a whisper. In airing a programme like this, and putting your name behind it, you are potentially after hushing it back into the shadows again. So much good much-needed work has been done by different groups over the past 15 years to normalise mental health issues. But a programme with the stamp of the national broadcaster, a broadcaster respected throughout the world stigmatising the use of SSRIs for people with genuine need? That is damaging and there is no way to know just how much.
The experts are coming out in force to discredit the theories put forward in this documentary. However, the fears of there being no smoke without fire are seen in many other cases including use of vaccines and opioids. Had I been more vulnerable watching, as I have seen many others cite this evening, I would likely have considered simply stopping my regime. The possible effects of this could be catastrophic. I honestly hope that BBC Panorama don’t wind up with blood on their hands for this display of complete lack of understanding. In future, I hope that their producers will think before they air a programme so filled with “whataboutery” and unsubstantiated evidence. There is a difference between warnings about real risks, like you have done in so many programmes before, and scaremongering, which is all this one is good for.
I hope this gives you food for thought, and that the same mistakes will not be made in future episodes of BBC Panorama.
Have you seen the BBC Panorama programme in question? What are your thoughts?
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