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Kip Kinkel: Listening to Prozac?

June 15, 1998 [ Printer-friendly version ]

Speaking Saturday at Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore., President Clinton lamented kids' "easy access to guns in a culture where they've been exposed to lots and lots and lots of violence." He considered this a "combustible combination" for troubled children. But there is one element in the combustible mixture the president did not mention: the phenomenal increase in prescriptions of Prozac and other anti-depressants written for children -- even though these drugs have not been approved for pediatric use by the Food and Drug Administration.

Kip Kinkel was one of those children.

If some good is to come out of the Springfield tragedy, maybe the fact that the 15-year-old who opened fire in the school cafeteria had been on Prozac will spur the public to demand a national conversation not just about gun control, but about drug control. I don't mean the costly and questionably effective war on illegal drugs, but rather control of legal drugs like Prozac, which are being prescribed to younger and younger kids -- including preposterously enough, 1-year-olds.

Kip will be arraigned Tuesday and piecing together his medical history is not easy now that there is a gag order on all litigants. But according to Diane Sheldon, a family friend who went on vacation to Costa Rica with the Kinkels in June 1996, Kip had just been put on Prozac. His mother made repeated references to Kip's taking the drug and how pleased they were with the outcome. "The Prozac is working," she kept saying. Kip seemed happy and was showing enthusiasm for something other than firearms.

But what was being wrought underneath this apparent improvement in his behavior? In multimillion-dollar ads in national magazines, a wilting tree is transformed, thanks to Prozac, into a bright evergreen. But is the glowing tree rotting within? The trend line is ominous. Children ages 6 to 18 received 735,000 prescriptions for Prozac and other anti-depressants in 1996 -- up a staggering 80 percent since 1994. The need for more hard data about a powerful drug that may be poisoning our children is urgent.

A good start would be to make available to the public information about the drugs Kip has been on, who prescribed them, what were the dosages and what were the side effects. Did he experience the mental and physical agitation many Prozac users describe? And how did the famed "assertiveness" Prozac induces affect a disturbed teenager who clearly needed less self-confidence and more self-doubt about his dark fantasies?

According to Mark Sabitt, Kip's lawyer, his office has received many calls and letters from members of the public concerned about what impact Prozac had on the boy's behavior. Prozac has been claimed as a mitigating factor in criminal cases so many times that such a strategy has its own name: "the Prozac Defense."

There have already been more than 270 lawsuits against Eli Lilly, Prozac's manufacturer. One, brought by the children of a man who stabbed his wife 15 times while on the drug, will be heard in Honolulu's federal court in October. The judge preliminarily ruled that "Lilly may have acted wantonly, oppressively or with such malice as implies a spirit of mischief or criminal indifference."

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who sits on the Human Resources Subcommittee (which oversees the FDA), wrote a letter to the Drug Enforcement Administration expressing his concerns about "expanding the availability of Prozac to underage children." But to his surprise, the Congressman learned that unlike Ritalin, Valium, Halcyon and Xanax, Prozac is not covered by the Controlled Substances Act.

This is yet another of the many unanswered questions about Prozac: Why doesn't the DEA closely monitor a drug whose usage is skyrocketing and whose side-effects remain disturbingly unexplored? Last week, Kucinich fired off another letter to the DEA castigating as "unfortunate and short-sighted" the agency's decision "to absolve itself of issuing a position on the FDA's consideration of expanded Prozac sales to children."

As of yet, Kucinich is alone in his quest. What could be inhibiting others on the Hill from joining him? Perhaps an addiction to pharmaceutical companies' campaign contributions?

Maybe the carnage in Springfield will push the nation to act. Finding out as much as we can about Kip's history with Prozac would shed a lot of light on its impact. If he was, indeed, put on Prozac in the summer of 1996, how long did he stay on it? And if he was taken off, what were the withdrawal symptoms? Was he prescribed it after a full psychological evaluation? If not, how, and why? And on that fateful day when he opened fire on his schoolmates, was he still listening to Prozac?

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