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Antidepressant warning could increase stigma

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Mental health advocates fear the government's requirement of a "black box" warning on antidepressants prescribed to children and adolescents increases the stigma of mental illness and will dissuade families from getting the help they need.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has directed drug manufacturers to add the warning to the health professional labeling of all antidepressant drugs, describing the increased risks of suicidal thoughts in children and adolescents who take them.

A black box warning is the most serious warning label placed in the labeling of prescription medication and comes as a result of new evidence experts assert links the antidepressants to increased suicidal thoughts and behavior among children taking the drugs.

But Utah representatives of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill said the new labeling requirement fails to acknowledge that untreated mental illness poses a very real risk of suicide.

"NAMI sees this as a very serious omission," said Vicki Cottrell, executive director of NAMI Utah.

Cottrell cited a Utah Youth Suicide Study that found 90 percent of Utah children who commit suicide had been suffering from a psychiatric disorder for at least two years and only 12 percent were receiving treatment. In all cases, the autopsy showed no traces of psychiatric medicine in the system.

Sherri Wittwer, NAMI's director of development, said national estimates show 80 percent of young children with mental illness go untreated and suicide is the No. 3 cause of death for people ages 15 to 24.

Wittwer fears the FDA's black box labeling requirement will only exacerbate the problem because it fails to acknowledge any value to using medication to treat mental illness.

"The new warning does not state anything about the risks of untreated mental illness," she said. "It's kind of like that old saying 'throwing the baby out with the bath water' to assert that all medications are bad. There have been so many families and children who have been helped by having access to these medications."

The FDA has said it will develop a patient medication guide to help consumers become educated about the risks and precautions associated with antidepressants — information Wittwer said will be useful.

"We have always been in favor of families having clear information on the medications given to their children and having them closely monitored as they are being treated," she said.

"But the biggest issue is parents are not getting their children in to get them treated for mental illness."

E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com