Last May, a Peabody was awarded to the film Depression: Out of the Shadows, a documentary which aired in 2008 on PBS, was produced by Twin Cities Public Television and WGBH Boston, and was written and directed by Minneapolis-based filmmaker Larkin McPhee.
The documentary profiled a wide variety of patients struggling with depression, including a former gang member from the California Bay Area, a new mother from Minneapolis, and Andrew Solomon, best selling author of The Noonday Demon, a depression memoir. As the diversity of McPhee’s subjects and the emotional honesty rendered in her patient interviews made apparent, depression is socially and economically indiscriminate in its capacity to cripple the human spirit.
But where her film was generous in its inclusion of heartbreaking personal stories about depression, its broad survey of the science of the illness included frequent appearances by Charles Nemeroff, M.D., a leading—some say powerful—mood disorders researcher from Emory University. Last fall, Nemeroff also became one of the most prominent psychiatrists to be rebuked for failing to disclose funds earned from the drug industry.
Last October, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa notified Emory that Nemeroff had received $2.8 million from drug companies between 2000 and 2007, $1.2 million of which he failed to report to the university, as he was required to do according to federal rules. To reduce their risk of bias, National Institutes of Health (NIH) researchers must limit to $10,000 their annual receipt of payments from the makers of drugs they are studying. As the lead investigator for a five-year, $3.95 million federal grant to study Paxil and other GlaxoSmithKline drugs, Nemeroff pocketed seventeen times the NIH limit from GSK in 2004 alone, and exceeded his limit every year from 2003 through 2006, without informing his employers. Following his rebuke, Nemeroff lost his chairmanship at Emory, saw $9.2 million in NIH funds meant for Emory frozen, and was banned from federal research for two years.
Some might argue that little about this episode matters, since Nemeroff’s downfall took place in October and Depression: Out of the Shadows aired five months earlier. Yet a simple Google search would have alerted McPhee to the fact that Nemeroff, though the author of hundreds of research papers and well respected in his field, has been dogged by conflict of interest allegations for years. In 2003, he came under fire for praising three pharmaceutical products in the journal Nature Neuroscience without disclosing he held a financial stake in their success, one of which he held the patent on.
Three years later, Nemeroff resigned from his editorship of the journal Neuropsychopharmacology after The Wall Street Journal reported he held an undisclosed financial stake in a treatment for depression he praised in an article. Nemeroff is either great at making excuses for his conduct or extremely unlucky. Following his 2003 misstep, he blamed the journal in question for not requiring him to mention his conflicts. Following his omission in 2006, Nemeroff blamed a clerical error. Following his rebuke by Sen. Grassley, Nemeroff told his employers he did not realize that drug-industry sponsored continuing education appearances were payments requiring disclosure.
All defenses aside, by the time of production for Depression: Out of the Shadows, his drug industry entanglements were both widely distributed and widely known. “With financial ties to nearly two dozen drug and biotech companies,” wroteShannon Brownlee in The Washington Monthly in 2004, “Dr. Charles B. Nemeroff may hold some sort of record among academic clinicians for the most conflicts of interest.”
That PBS producers either did not know about Nemeroff’s drug industry entanglements or did not believe they tainted his discussion of the science of depression is disappointing. Indeed, the science of the illness and antidepressant medications is far less uniformly agreed upon than is depicted in the documentary. Disputes are ongoing over the efficacy, mechanism of action, and “targeted” nature of antidepressants—blockbuster drugs that remain the recipient of favorable press coverage even while now going off patent.
But what made the praise bestowed on this PBS documentary particularly troubling were the erroneous, drug-industry serving statements made by Nemeroff within the film—statements which had the potential to negatively affect public health, and which the documentary left unchallenged. During a segment on the FDA’s 2004 decision to require “black box” safety warnings stating that antidepressants can increase the risk of suicide in children and teenagers, a risk it extended in May of 2007 to users under twenty-five, Nemeroff seized the occasion to claim that the federal safety warning was mistaken.
He did so by citing a 2007 study partially funded by Pfizer and published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, a paper ostensibly linking the warning with a subsequent increase in teen suicides. “The FDA put a black box warning for all age groups,” Nemeroff said in the documentary. “I believe this was a mistake, because in hastening our awareness, what we’ve shown is there’s been a marked drop in prescriptions of antidepressants, particularly for children and adolescents…and an increase in suicides and suicide attempts.”
But as critics quickly pointed out
to The Boston Globe and The New York Times, the increase in suicides Nemeroff described actually occurred a year before a drop-off in antidepressant use. (You can’t blame a rise in suicides in 2003 on a drop off in prescriptions in 2005.) At the time, most parties to this debate agreed that the question of whether black-box warnings were inadvertently dangerous would not be further clarified until the release of Centers for Disease Control suicide data from 2005.
That data came out a month later, and showed that suicides have fallen overall; a follow-up report showed that suicides have fallen among youth specifically. The total number remains higher than in 2003, but less than in 2004, when the FDA warning went into effect.
Given the complexity of epidemiological data and the rarity of suicide, those findings prove little except that any effort to link an uptick in suicides to reduced prescribing of antidepressant medications to children and teenagers is not supported by the epidemiological data.
Something about the simultaneously complex and sympathetic nature of mental health reporting is making reputable journalistic organizations and well-meaning reporters sloppy. Last year, NPR aired a documentary on antidepressants and suicide in a radio show called The Infinite Mind. The show featured the comments of experts with undisclosed ties to the drug industry. This alone drew the wrath of observers—yet, as chronicled by Jonathan Leo, Ph.D on the Web site Chemicalimbalance.org, the documentary was peppered with inaccurate statements and drug-industry-serving spin. Its host, the psychiatrist Frederick Goodwin, eventually came under fire for not disclosing his own history of receiving money from the drug industry.
As the cases of PBS and NPR make clear, reporters who hand over their microphones to clinicians harboring such conflicts are the health beat equivalent of Judith Miller handing over her discussion of WMDs to Ahmed Chalabi. “I will not believe anything he says,” a Nemeroff critic and fellow psychiatrist told the Atlanta Journal Constitution following his downfall. “I will not believe anything he writes.”
If a source has critics like this, and if the judges for the Peabody Awards—or reporters they praise—cannot locate these critics, we deserve better awards.Paul Scott is a writer who lives in Minnesota. He has written for The New York Times and Men's Health, and is the recipient of a National Magazine Award.