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Saturday, April 02, 2016

Q&A With Leonie Fennell

Imagine, if you will, a Sunday morning. You have that extra hour in bed with your partner. You can hear the kids downstairs playing, the TV is blaring, their laughter makes you smile.

You climb out of your slumber and head for the kitchen, breakfast is soon on the go and you all sit down as a family to eat.

Imagine, if you will, a knock at your door. On answering you see two police officers.

They are the bearers of bad news ~ they tell you that your son is wanted for questioning, moreover, they tell you that he is suspected of killing someone.

Imagine, if you will, during this visit a message comes through on one of the officer's walkie-talkies. "We've found the suspect, he's at the rear of the property... he's dead."

The unthinkable.

Leonie Fennell and her husband Tony don't need to imagine. This is their reality.

I first met both Tony and Leonie at an award ceremony in East Grinstead. We stayed up until the small hours talking about their son, Shane. It, for me, was heart-wrenching to hear and see two broken parents, particularly as my roots stem from Ireland (my mother being born and raised there)

We kept in touch and I've popped across the Irish sea to see them both on a number of occasions. Words cannot describe this beautiful couple, this beautiful family ~ all plodding along after such a tragedy. I've met Leonie's extended family too, a wonderful bunch (clan) who made me feel so welcome.

Leonie, as you will see from the Q&A's, has been very vocal in her mission to raise awareness about antidepressants. Shane was just 22 when he broke up with his girlfriend. He was heartbroken - he was prescribed the powerful antidepressant, citalopram (known as Celexa in the US). A month or so later Shane committed homicide and then killed himself, two acts brought on by induced psychosis, an adverse side effect of citalopram.

Tony and Leonie have been a part of my 10 year journey with this blog. I love them both dearly.

Full name: Leonie Fennell
Age: 50
Location: Wicklow, Ireland.

Q: Leonie, now that you have established yourself as a blogger, do you feel that your work over the years has brought about change in the way that many feel about antidepressant use?

A: Surprisingly, I do. The feedback suggests that the public are far more enlightened to the harms that come directly from putting harmful chemicals into our bodies. It has taken a long time for people to realise that medicines (prescribed by a friendly GP), while often doing good, can equally cause huge harm. When I started out in 2009, antidepressants were mainly seen as harmless happy-pills. People now seem far more cautious and whether they believe me or not, is irrelevant. Being aware of issues can often mean an adverse reaction is recognised for what it is - caused by the drug and not the supposed ‘illness’.  I think, in Ireland at least, largely due to the work of Irish doctor David Healy, people are questioning over-medicalization, particularly of our children. The tide is definitely turning on the pharmaceutical industry.

Q: They say that behind every good woman is a good man (or something like that). Your other half, Tony, has, I know, been a tower of strength for you and your family. How important is it, for you, to have the support of Tony?

A: He’s amazing - my rock. Don’t tell him I told you though, wouldn’t want him to get a big head. Joking aside, Tony has kept us all going, through thick and thin, through the laughter and the tears. He’s like a big soft cuddly toy - a bit battered and bruised, but totally-loved teddy bear. He was a broken man when Shane died and while the scar tissue must surely be visible under a microscope, he’s survived to battle on, especially for Shane. As a family we still laugh often - sometimes at Tony, but usually with him. I think he quite likes it.

Q: Back in 2011 you and Tony travelled to Denmark to meet with Lundbeck. The subject matter, in the main, was about citalopram (Celexa), the antidepressant that induced psychosis is your son, Shane. Can you tell me more about that meeting and how you feel it went?

A: To be honest, it wasn’t too surprising. I think the Lundbeck officials we met actually expected us to accept their denials and walk away hand-in-hand into the Copenhagen sunset. Instead, they just confirmed what we knew already, that most pharmaceutical companies will lie and cheat in order to cover up the harms done by their chemicals. The many deaths, like Shane’s, are brushed aside as collateral damage, a nuisance. The meeting was a bizarre experience.

Q: On average, how much time do you spend with work that relates to your blog?

A: Many, many, hours. I could often spend entire days doing research, which may or may not turn out to be useful. It’s my form of relaxation and I could quite happily sit in the midst of chaos while working on a particular subject.

Q: 2011 was, it appears, a busy year for you. In the summer of that year you were contacted by solicitors with regard to something you wrote about Irish psychiatrist, Patricia Casey. Can you tell me what all that was about and what was the outcome?

A: Casey is probably one of Ireland’s most widely recognised psychiatrists. She often sends people solicitor’s letters when she gets offended – which is quite frequent. I have never been reticent about being shocked and distressed when she commandeered Shane’s inquest, arriving uninvited to offer her assistance to the coroner. After her offer was ignored, she then wasn’t happy with the jury’s decision (an ‘open’ verdict). Directly after the inquest, on the steps coroner’s court, she proceeded to speak to the waiting media, stating there were aspects of the evidence that the college (of psychiatry) took issue with. I think her issues were with Dr David Healy, who testified that these drugs can be dangerous, in particular that SSRI antidepressants can cause suicide and violence. Later, she took offence against a blog I wrote about her and sent me a solicitor’s letters for my troubles. I then published the letter saying I would not be bullied or intimidated by Lundbeck or anyone else – so she sent me another one and I published that too. I think you know you’re on the right track when you get a ‘Casey Correspondence’.

Q: Congratulations on graduating with a law degree. It's a wonderful achievement. What made you decide on studying law?

A: I started studying law the year after Shane died. I basically wanted to find out how the pharmaceutical companies were getting away with harming people on this side of the Atlantic, when in the U.S. cases are regularly settled or the pharmaceutical industry are found guilty. Same drugs, same humans but warnings provided in the U.S. and none here – it’s a ridiculous situation. There will be no accountability until the legal system and our governments takes steps to sanction wrongdoing by these enormous companies. At the moment companies like GlaxoSmithKline and Lundbeck are being permitted to run rough-shod over Europe. The law degree helped me to understand the situation, but not accept it. I should say though, that I thoroughly enjoyed every second of doing law with my lovely colleagues and lecturers -  it was a great distraction.

Q: Would you recommend blogging to parents, or anyone for that matter, who had lost someone dear to them through antidepressant induced suicide?

A: I certainly would. Apart from being another great distraction, it’s a cheap form of therapy. It helps to get things in perspective and enables many diverse conversations. I do know that my family was helped enormously by other bloggers, particularly you and Truthman. It’s such a huge revelation when you find others in a similar situation, having thought you were alone. Sadly, there are many more victims and bereaved families since – yet, as there are more experts willing to speak out (Peter Gøtzsche for example), I think positive changes are coming fast.

Q: As an outsider looking in (kind of) I am amazed at your commitment and tenacity. What is it that keeps you going?

A: That’s easy – Shane. He was just so lovely, kind, funny and caring. I think of him every second of every day and the injustice of his death keeps me going. He was very like me and would have fought many injustices in his 22 years. I believe with every fibre of my being that Shane died because of Citalopram.  Therefore, I could never have moved on, taken the other option - to live a relatively easy life, albeit one without Shane.  To do that would have been to actively enable similar deaths to happen to others. It was never an option. It helps that there are so many of us in the same boat, helping each other out.

Q: Have you ever considered writing a book about your journey?

A. I have and it’s about 2/3 of the way finished. It’s just a matter of time, which I never seem to have enough of. The goalposts keep moving, with so much emerging pharmaceutical information. Shane’s personal story is fighting with my academic side and I’m trying hard to marry both and still keep it interesting.

Q: What do you say to people who believe that antidepressants are safe and effective?

A: Some people seem to be able to take antidepressants without coming to any harm. Whether through the placebo effect, or otherwise, some say they are helped by them. There are many reasons for this, not least that people usually get better with or without medication. Nevertheless, we know that these drugs are neither safe nor effective for the majority of people that take them, with experts saying they are causing ‘more harm than good’. We know they can double the risk of suicide and violence, cause mania, increased depression and a myriad of other harmful effects, including heart problems and stroke (causing many fatalities). Two innocuously-sounding effects that fascinate me are emotional-blunting and disinhibition – effectively meaning that a huge percentage of people could be walking around with sociopathic tendencies. No doubt future generations will look back and see this era of mass-prescribing, as ludicrous. I would advocate vehemently for fully-informed-consent, a practice sadly lacking in Europe.

Q: I see from your Facebook profile that you have an annual dip in the river each December. Can you tell me more about that and other charity work that you are involved with?

A: My family do the Christmas Day swim in Sandycove every year, to raise money for the Simon Community. I don’t if I can get away with it and instead, I pay to get out of it. I spend from January to December dreading it, so I bribed Tony into doing it last time and happily looked on from the side-lines at all the blue bodies. For some strange reason, one that I could never fathom, my mother, brothers, sisters and cousins love jumping into the freezing Irish sea – I don’t.

Q: When I spent time with you and Tony in Ireland you told me about Shane's gesture on his 21st birthday. (Church) For the benefit of this Q&A can you tell the readers about this wonderful gesture?

A: It wasn’t the church, it was the St Vincent De Paul, a charity he was very fond of - he worked there as a volunteer. Shane was very kind-hearted, always eager to help those who were unable to help themselves - so much so that he was referred to by his lecturers as ‘an chroi mór’ (Irish for the big heart). For his 21st birthday party in 2008, Shane asked everyone to make a donation to the St Vincent de Paul rather than buy him a present.  He told everyone he didn’t need presents, that he had everything he could possibly need.  He wrote the following words on his official 21st party invites...

“…despite the fact that my parents neglect me [joke], believe it or not I am spoiled.  So instead of spending money on a card or anything else, please make use of the St. Vincent de Paul box on the night where you can give the money to someone who needs it as I have everything, thanks. Shane”

Q: For you, what is the most frustrating part about being a patient advocate?

A: What frustrates me most is lackadaisical journalists who come looking for newspaper fodder. They often look for contacts details (of medical experts and bereaved parents) and I’ll happily do what I can to help. Occasionally though, they look for ‘all the up-to-date evidence’ and I can spend days doing research, effectively doing their job for them. Nevertheless, I persevere just because I’m thankful that iatrogenic harm will be discussed – how sad is that? I wish there were more good scientific journalists, who would use their own initiative and do their own research. We could do with some good medical and science writers over here – I wonder could we adopt Robert Whitaker or Mikey Nardo?

Q: Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?

A: Besides pottering around Wicklow with Tony, having recovered from the empty-nest syndrome and if I haven’t kicked the bucket, I see myself teaching Pharma-Ethics (unethical ethics), or something similar. I hope to put my years of studying, research and life-experience to good use and have many projects in the pipeline. However, I wouldn’t have predicted living the life I now lead, so who knows?

Q: Finally Leonie, some personal questions...

1. What book are you currently reading?

A: I’m studying at the moment, so the book that comes everywhere with me is ‘Principle of Biomedical Ethics’ by Beauchamp and Childress. It’s actually not as bad as it sounds.

2. What was the last CD you listened to (in full)?

A: The Best of John Denver (in the car while I waited for the boys to come out from Jiu-Jitsu training).

3. What is the best movie you have seen this year?

A: ‘Daddy’s Home’ with Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg (in the cinema with my 17-year-old son Jack). Absolutely Hilarious - although I think Jack was a little mortified in certain parts.

4. What country would you most like to visit?

A: Italy. We went for a day-trip to Ventimiglia last year (from Monaco) and it was just so incredible. It made us want to return to see more: the old buildings, the markets, the food, the people, the sun, the double decker trains –  sweet memories!

5. If you had the choice of being either a defence or prosecution lawyer, which would you choose and why?

A: Not sure I understand the question, a good lawyer should do both I think. While we’d all love to change the world like Erin Brockovich, if the defending lawyer doesn’t defend the accused to the very best of his ability (particularly if he believes him to be guilty), that may leave the option open for a re-trial or a mistrial. We can all have subjective opinions, but a good legal system should be based on objectivity. HOWEVER, I can’t say I’d be very objective if I was to represent a victim of the pharmaceutical industry.

Leonie Fennell Blog

Leonie's Twitter Page

Bob Fiddaman

Previous Q&A's

Q&A With Ablechild's Sheila Matthews-Gallo