Trigger Warning: This story contains references to mental health and suicide and may be triggering to some readers.
As a producer for a Minneapolis, Minnesota-based advertising agency, Kim Witczak traveled all over the world to work on film and photo shoots with brands like BMW and Citibank. A business trip to Detroit in 2003 should have been like all the others. But before she left, her typically laid-back husband, Woody, was not himself. He’d landed his dream job at a Twin Cities startup but was having trouble sleeping. A month earlier, he was prescribed a new drug on the market called Zoloft, an antidepressant. He wasn’t depressed and didn’t have a history of depression, but his physician said it would take the edge off and help him sleep. A week before her trip, Woody fell to the kitchen floor clutching his head and begged her to help him. “It’s like my head is outside my body looking in,” he told her. They called the doctor, who said it would take a few weeks for the drug to kick in.
Now Kim was working 700 miles away from home and Woody wasn’t responding to her messages. She called her dad and asked him to check on Woody. When he called her back, the news was something she had never imagined. He had found her husband dead in their garage. Woody had taken his own life at 37 years old. In an instant, Kim’s world came crashing down. She and Woody had been together since right after college. They were planning a family and a long future together. This didn’t make sense. Something wasn’t adding up.
Coincidentally, on the day of Woody’s death, the headline on the cover of the local newspaper read: “UK study finds link between antidepressants and suicide in teens.” As Kim scrambled to get home, her brother-in-law began researching antidepressants and suicide. He learned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had held hearings in the early ’90s about a link between Prozac and suicide. The drug makers were ordered to do a study, but more than a decade later there was no information about it or any followup from the FDA. No black box warning (BBW) had been issued for Prozac to inform patients and clinicians about serious potential adverse reactions to antidepressants. When the coroner told Kim that Zoloft may have had something to do with Woody’s suicide, she made it her mission to get to the bottom of it.
A few weeks later, Kim met with a lawyer in Los Angeles. They began working together to file a wrongful death/failure to warn lawsuit in federal court. Kim started making regular trips to Washington, D.C., sitting in on hearings and learning more about drug laws. She met other individuals and organizations advocating for patient and drug safety. She became the voice of the voiceless, speaking out for Woody and others who’d lost their lives as unwitting drug company test subjects. She launched Woody Matters, an organization dedicated to educating consumers, advocating for patients and families, and influencing drug safety reform.
In 2004, the FDA finally issued a BBW regarding the increased risk of suicidality in children using antidepressants. Two years later, the warning was extended to include teens and young adults. Meanwhile, Kim’s legal team gained access to reams of sealed documents from the makers of Zoloft confirming they knew about the suicide risk and kept it secret. The case was settled out of court. As Kim saw the inner workings of the American health care system, she realized the extent of its brokenness. It fueled her to keep fighting for change. To this day, she continues to work on getting the BBWs on antidepressants extended to include all ages.
Having spent much of her career working in advertising, Kim is particularly passionate about advocating for truth in marketing. She co-founded and organized “Selling Sickness: People Before Profits,” an international conference bringing consumer advocates, health care providers, medical reformers, lawyers and journalists together to develop strategies to end disease mongering, a common practice where drug companies “sponsor” diseases, promoting them to physicians who prescribe medications while simultaneously marketing the treatments to consumers. She was appointed consumer representative to the FDA Psychopharmacologic Drugs Advisory Committee. She travels the globe, speaking and advocating for the need for transparency in the pharmaceutical industry.
Thanks to the efforts of Kim and others, change is slowly happening. Consumers are getting smarter. Laws are being enacted to protect them. But there is always more work to do. If Kim ever doubts the difference one person can make when taking on a giant industry, she reminds herself of a time when a media conglomerate proposed a second cell phone tower near her and Woody’s home, and Woody decided to fight it. She asked if it would be worth the effort and he said: “I’d rather try like hell and lose than do nothing at all.” The cell phone company’s request to build the tower was denied. And Woody’s words are now the mantra that guide Kim every day.
PC: Woody Matters
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