• U.S.

Did Prozac Make Him Do It?

2 minute read
Lawrence Mondi

On the morning of Sept. 14, 1989, Joseph Wesbecker — an out-of-work pressman — walked into the printing plant of his former employer, the Standard Gravure company of Louisville, Kentucky, and began blasting away with an AK-47. When the shooting was over, 12 people were wounded and nine dead — including Wesbecker, from a self-inflicted pistol shot.

What makes this tragedy different from other mass shootings is that for a month before the incident, Wesbecker, who suffered from depression, had been taking Prozac. In a case being heard by a Louisville jury, survivors and the families of the victims are trying to prove that Prozac — the most widely prescribed antidepressant — triggered the rampage, and they are seeking damages from Prozac’s manufacturer, Eli Lilly.

Prozac is the most popular of a new class of drugs that treat depression by increasing levels of the brain chemical serotonin. Doctors have known for some time that raising serotonin levels can positively affect a patient’s mood, but they can’t always be sure that the drug will have the desired effect.

In this case, the plaintiffs are trying to show that Lilly knew that some patients became suicidal or agitated during clinical trials. Lilly lawyers will argue that Wesbecker’s was not a sudden, Prozac-induced rage but rather a carefully plotted attack, and that the plaintiffs’ claim lacks scientific merit.

Psychiatrists are keeping a close eye on the Louisville case, the first of 160 civil suits against Lilly to make it to trial. After the shooting, the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a group founded by the Church of Scientology, tried to capitalize on the Louisville incident as part of an all- out campaign to discredit Prozac and psychiatry.

It hasn’t worked. In 1991 the FDA denied a CCHR petition to take Prozac off the market, and an FDA panel found “no credible evidence” of a link between the drug and violent behavior. In 56 criminal cases, defendants who tried the Prozac-made-me-do-it defense have been equally unsuccessful. But a verdict against Prozac might, unfortunately, scare patients off the best available medicine, says Louisville psychiatrist Dr. David Moore. “The courtroom is no place for finding scientific truth.”

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