A personal investigation exposing the deadly secrets of Big Pharma and the multi-billion dollar industry of psychiatric diagnosis & medications.
After her sister died suddenly and unexpectedly while being treated with prescription antipsychotics, director Anniken Hoel begins a global investigation into the crimes of the pharmaceutical industry, the unheralded growth of psychiatric diagnoses and medication, and the corruption of the government regulatory agencies that have failed, repeatedly, to protect us.
Made over a ten-year period, the film is simultaneously personal and investigative as it follows Anniken as she seeks answers regarding not only the death of her sister, but of the tens of thousands worldwide who have also met a similar fate. Deaths and damages that until now have been all but ignored. Beginning in a small town in Norway, and journeying through Scandinavia, the EU and the US, the chilling documentary-thriller CAUSE OF DEATH: UNKNOWN exposes the inner workings and motivations of a powerful industry that continually puts profits before people, and has been far too influential in defining who is normal and who is "ill".
Antipsychotics have been responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide, but little is being done about that. What are they, how do they work, and what are their dangers?
What are antipsychotics?
Antipsychotics, also known as neuroleptics or major tranquilizers, are a class of medication primarily used to manage psychosis, principally in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. They are, however, increasingly being used in the management of non-psychotic disorders. Antipsychotics can be effective in relieving symptoms of psychosis in the short term.
When did they first come into use?
The first antipsychotic, chlorpromazine, was not initially developed as a psychiatric drug -- it was being used as a pre-anesthetic to keep agitated surgical patients subdued. In 1952, French doctors began giving it to patients experiencing manic or psychotic episodes, and they found that it had a long-lasting calming effect. Marketed as Thorazine, it was the first commercially available antipsychotic. Similar drugs, such as Haldol, appeared over the next decades. In the 1980s and 90s a second generation of antipsycotics were introduced to the market (so-called atypical antipsychotics) -- including Zyprexa, Risperdal, Seroquel, Clozaril and Geodon. This new generation was touted as being vastly superior to the older drugs.
How do they work?
The short answer is -- we don't know for sure. For decades, the pharmaceutical industry has embraced the chemical imbalance theory, which argues that all mental illnesses are caused by too much or too little serotonin or dopamine in the brain. This theory has been scientifically debunked many times, but it remains the go-to explanation by doctors and psychiatrists worldwide. Antipsychotics are meant to "fix" these imbalances, and though they do affect the production of chemicals in the brain, there is no long-term evidence that they help with the conditions for which they were prescribed.
Are they safe?
Hardly. The side effects of these early antipsychotics were severe. Involuntary, repetitive body movements (tardive dyskinesia), a decrease in white blood cell count (leukopenia) and a life-threatening reaction known as neuroleptic malignent syndrome were common. They also caused cardiac changes (QTc prolongation) that could lead to sudden death. The atypical antipsychotics were heralded as having far fewer dangerous side effects, but that wasn't true at all. The above-mentioned side effects all remained, and new ones, such as weight gain (often leading to diabetes) and an increased risk in cardiovascular disease made them no safer than their predecesors.
What is QTc Prolongation?
In cardiology, the QT interval is a measure of the time between the start and end of a wave in the heart's normal electrical cycle. A lengthened QT interval (QTc prolongation) is a marker for the potential of ventricular tachyarrhythmias like torsades de pointes and a risk factor for sudden death.
Is it dangerous to be taking more than one antipsychotic at a time?
Yes! The warning labels of all antipsychotics strongly advise against taking more than one drug of this class at a time. Yet the prescribing of multiple antipsychotics (polypharmacy) is a far-too-common practice. You can read more about this here.
If these drugs have such dangerous side effects, how did they become so popular?
As we reveal in the film, the industry suppressed and actively hid data that showed the dangerous side effects. On top of that, after the patent loss of Prozac, the industry began creating new uses (off-label) for antipsychotics for conditions in which they not only have no proven benefit, such as dementia, Alzheimer's, ADHD, and PTSD, but can be far more deadly than beneficial.
What should I do if a doctor prescribes me an antipsychotic?
As we mention in the film, for people with acute psychosis, the drugs can and do provide temporary relief from such episodes. However, in the long term the benefits are less proven. For conditions such as dementia, Alzheimer's, ADHD, or PTSD, you might want to read more on the subject, and speak frankly with your doctor about your concerns regarding side-effects and the difficulty in getting off the drugs.
Report a death (or severe side effects), and organize a screening to help spread the word!
In Cause of Death: Unknown, we reveal how and why the actual number of deaths related to psychiatric medication are covered up. What can we do to reveal the true numbers? What can we do to prevent future deaths? How can you help spread the word? Take action!
Report a Death
Renate Hoel's death is just one of potentially hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by psychiatric medication. Like most deaths related to these drugs, her official cause of death was recorded as "unknown". But in the course of making the film we encountered many other families and loved ones who lost somebody to these medications. The official numbers according to the pharmaceutical industry and the regulatory agencies is already in the thousands, but we know there are many, many more.
How can we get closer to revealing the actual number? If you know of someone who died while being treated with psychiatric medication, it's important that you let their story be known. Regardless of what country you live in, anybody can report a drug-related death (or severe side-effect) to the Food & Drug Administration via their MedWatch Online Voluntary Reporting Form. Additionally, we are also interested in hearing about other deaths related to these drugs, so please feel free to contact us with your story.
Resources for People on Psychiatric Drugs
Two excellent sites for people who are taking psychiatric drugs and/or are part of the mental health system are The Inner Compass Initiative and The International Institute for Psychiatric Drug Withdrawal. Founded by Laura Delano, who appears in the film, the Inner Compass Initiative provides information, resources, tools, and connecting platforms to facilitate more informed choices regarding all things "mental health". The IIPD develops research and practice-based knowledge that will facilitate safe reduction of and withdrawal from psychiatric drugs.
Spread the Word!
Knowing more about these drugs, and the ways in which the industry has convinced doctors to prescribe them for uses in which they have no proven benefit, is one of the best tools in helping people make informed choices about the medication their doctor has prescribed. For far too long the pharmaceutical industry has dominated the discussion around the treatment of mental illness, and it's time that the other side of the story is told. Cause of Death: Unknown unravels this complex tale, and it's our hope that it inspires people to think twice before blindly filling a prescription handed to them by their doctor or other healthcare professional. You can help spread the word by organizing a screening in your community, or by simply letting your friends and loved ones know how they can stream or purchase the film.