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Shooting fuels debate over safety of Prozac for teens
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Jeff Weise, the assailant in the Red Lake shootings, was reportedly taking Prozac, a popular antidepressant. Some research seems to indicates a link between the medication and suicide attempts and violence. (Photo by Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)
Family members of Jeff Weise say they have questions about the medication he was taking up until the day of the shootings in Red Lake. Authorities say Weise shot and killed nine people before turning the gun on himself. Weise was taking the antidepressant Prozac. The shootings are likely to renew the controversy over the use of antidepressants in children and adolescents.

St. Paul, Minn. — Jeff Weise's aunts, Shauna and Tammy Lussier, say they had no idea he would carry out the grisly shootings in Red Lake. He had been living with them for the past seven or eight years.

The two aunts spoke recently to Fred de Sam Lazaro of PBS's NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and Twin Cities Public Television.

They told him they took Jeff to get help for problems he was having with police and at school. They say his treatment included the antidepressant Prozac.

"Actually, they had just recently upped his dosage. He was taking two pills a night, they upped it to three. We think that was too much for him, too much medication for him," they said.

Prozac is the only antidepressant approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use with adolescents.

In October, the FDA ordered that all antidepressants carry prominent warnings about an increased risk of suicidal thinking and behavior in children.

In October, the FDA ordered that all antidepressants carry prominent warnings about an increased risk of suicidal thinking and behavior in children.

And now, groups oposed to the use of antidepresseants in children are calling on the FDA to investigate the possible relationship between Prozac and the Red Lake shootings.

Critic Vera Sharav is president of the Alliance for Human Research Protection, a New York-based nonprofit, promoting openness and accountability in medical research. Her group has been calling attention to the potential dangers of giving children and adolescents Prozac.

Sharav points out that Eric Harris, one of the killers in the 1999 Columbine shootings, reportedly was prescribed Prozac. Sharav says Prozac and other antidepressants in the class of drugs known as SSRIs interfere with a person's inhibitions.

"Lots of us have violent thoughts. 'I would like to take this man by the throat, he's bothering me.' But we don't do it. The drug removes that inhibition to act out and that is why you have these explosive situations," says Sharev.

"That's just not a correct scientific statement," counters John M. Plewes, medical advisor at Eli Lilly, the maker of Prozac.

Though the FDA warning points out an increased risk of suicidal thinking, Plewes says that doesn't mean Prozac is at fault.

"There is no credible scientific evidence that has established a causal connection between Prozac and either violent or suicidal behavior," Plewes says. "This kind of behavior sometimes is a part of a serious, life-threatening illness -- that illness can be depression or some other illnesses -- but it's characterized by a variety of symptoms. And suicidal acts and thinking are symptoms of depression."

Despite the controversy over Prozac, an official with the American Psychiatric Association says 1.5 million kids are taking Prozac and other SSRI medications.

David Fassler is a trustee of the APA, and a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Burlington, Vermont. He says about half his adolescent patients are on SSRIs, and says they are very effective. But he says medication is best used with a comprehensive treatment plan that includes talk therapy.

Fassler says daily dosage ranges from 10 to 60 milligrams, based on body size and other factors. The severity of a child's depression is not a factor in determining dosage, he says.

Fassler says he makes sure patients and their parents understand the FDA warnings about SSRIs. He says parents need to advocate for their children to find the best treatment.

"There's no right answer for every family. They need to learn as much as they can about the risks and benefits of all treatment options, and the risk associated with not treating problems like depression," says Fassler. "Over half of the kids with depression will eventually attempt suicide. And between 2 and 5 percent will ultimately die as a result."

Whether or not Prozac played a role in the Red Lake shootings, the incident is likely to fuel still more debate over the safety of treating children and adolescents with the medication, and others like it.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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