Christopher Pittman seeks new trial

Christopher PittmanFrom Furious Seasons:

I simply don’t know what to make of the case of Christopher Pittman who was convicted of shooting his grandparents to death when he was 12-years-old–except that it argues for how risky it is to put young children on anti-depressants. Pittman, sentenced to 30 years in prison, is seeking a new trial and a hearing on that matter is underway in South Carolina.

You can read more about the Zoloft-rage/violence connection is relation to Pittman’s case.

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Pittman, Zoloft, and akathisia revisited

Christopher PittmanI’ve written about Christopher Pittman, now 19, who confessed to shooting and killing his grandparents when he was on psych meds at the age of 12. He appealed for a Supreme Court hearing but was denied, CNN reported today. He — and his defenders — appealed on the grounds that his 30-year sentence was “excessive for someone that age” and that the dosage of his antidepressants at the time (200 mg) “sent his mind spinning out of control.” Pittman was tried as an adult and, his lawyers argue, “no other inmate in the United States is serving so severe a sentence for a crime committed at such an early age.”

In previous posts here and here, I’ve questioned the link between Zoloft and violence/rage. Pittman, in 2001, had been switched to Zoloft a few days before the murder of his grandparents. However, it sounds like there had been some emotional problems in Pittman’s life that may have given prosecutors a solid case:

At the time of the crime, the boy had bounced around homes for years, experiencing a half dozen family splits and divorces after his mother had twice abandoned him as a child. She has not been in Pittman’s life for years.

Joe Pittman, the boy’s father, raised Christopher Pittman and his sister for much of their lives, but the relationship between father and son deteriorated. A state psychologist later testified this was a “young man who’d had difficulty with the adults in his life.”

On November 28, 2001, Pittman was sent home early for fighting in school and sent to bed by the grandparents. The boy claimed his “Pop-Pop” also beat him with a belt as punishment.

South Carolina prosecutors may easily have set Pittman up as a disturbed young man, which he very well may have been. But there are indications that this disturbance transcended his emotional state into his mental health:

After threatening to harm himself and suffering other emotional incidents, the boy was diagnosed as clinically depressed. His lawyers said Pittman was then given Paxil, a mild antidepressant no longer recommended for those under 18.

Just days before [shooting his grandparents], a doctor had begun prescribing Zoloft, another antidepressant. The family contends the abrupt substitution of drugs caused a bad chemical reaction, triggering violent outbursts.

At trial, a parade of psychiatrists offered conflicting testimony on whether the boy’s emotional problems excused his criminal behavior. Prosecutors called the Zoloft defense a “smokescreen.”

Juror Steven Platt later told CNN the crime appeared deliberate. “It always seemed like the defense was grasping at straws,” he said. “Just because you take prescription medicine doesn’t mean you can’t be held accountable for your actions.”

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The Zoloft-rage/violence connection

[This post is quite lengthy so I suggest you grab a cup of coffee or tea and sit down and read it. The following is not for the faint of heart (or those with a lack of time).]

It’s been amazing to me that I’ve received numerous comments on Zoloft inducing rage. I’m humbled by having a Pittman supporter visit my site and post some comments from the ChristopherPittman.org forums. Read the following:

In my senior year in high school I was diagnosed as being severely depressed and put on medication. The first medication that I was on I took for 5 months and it made me really aggressive. My friends and family noticed the change and I told my doctor about it and she changed my meds. After that I was fine. I am normally a very passive person and will let just about anything fly. But the medication made me really aggravated and aggressive toward my friends and family and it seemed that I wasn’t overcoming my depression. I just got done watching the 48 hours investigation on the Discovery Times Channel and felt a connection with Chris. I felt that I had to write this to let you know that Chris is not the only one out there that had these side effects. I think there should be a study done to see how many people that take antidepressants have increased aggression. The problem is that the pharmaceutical industry has deep pockets and many lobbyists. I hope this helps in some way.

And another:

I remember the case when it happened.

At the time I thought, “Zoloft right”.

Let me tell you my physician put me on Zoloft and it took about three weeks for my to become psychotic and I’m a 50 year old woman.

I have three children and I don’t make a lot of money but please let me know if I can do anything for the Pittman boy.

The jury should have been placed on Zoloft before they made they decision. Unless you’ve experience it you simply cannot believe its’ effect.

Brynn and Phil HartmanI did a bit of quick reading/research into Zoloft triggering violence in people who otherwise would have never been violent and it seems that are a few stories out there to support the assertion. I found a few comments on depressionblog.com that mentioned a link between Zoloft and rage fits. A Salon.com article published a story antidepressants inducing rage in 1999. Apparently, Brynn Hartman, the wife of famous comedian Phil Hartman, killed herself and her husband while taking Zoloft. While close friends attribute the sudden behavior on the antidepressant, others attribute it to a combination of the medication with cocaine and alcohol in her system. (Zoloft does have a warning against alcohol use in conjunction with the drug.)

One interesting thing I learned from the article is that this kind of behavior is often labeled under the name akathisia on patient safety guides. Most – if not all – of the major antidepressants list akathisia as a side effect. Here’s the initial description of this condition from Wikipedia:

Akathisia, or acathisia, is an unpleasant subjective sensation of “inner” restlessness that manifests itself with an inability to sit still or remain motionless… Its most common cause is as a side effect of medications, mainly neuroleptic antipsychotics especially the phenothiazines (such as perphenazine and chlorpromazine), thioxanthenes (such as flupenthixol and zuclopenthixol) and butyrophenones (such as haloperidol (Haldol)), and rarely, antidepressants.

Akathisia may range in intensity from a mild sense of disquiet or anxiety (which may be easily overlooked) to a total inability to sit still, accompanied by overwhelming anxiety, malaise, and severe dysphoria (manifesting as an almost indescribable sense of terror and doom).

No real mention of extreme anger or irritability mentioned there. But if you read on…

The 2006 U.K. study by Healy, Herxheimer, and Menkes observed that akathisia is often miscoded in antidepressant clinical trials as “agitation, emotional lability, and hyperkinesis (overactivity)”. The study further points out that misdiagnosis of akathisia as simple motor restlessness occurs, but that this is more properly classed as dyskinesia. Healy, et. al., further show links between antidepressant-induced akathisia and violence, including suicide, as akathisia can “exacerbate psychopathology.” The study goes on to state that there is extensive clinical evidence correlating akathisia with SSRI use, showing that approximately ten times as many patients on SSRIs as those on placebos showed symptoms severe enough to drop out of a trial (5.0% compared to 0.5%).

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