Three years ago, Sharon F., who lives in a small town in upstate New York, was married to an attorney and working as a nursing assistant. Today, she is separated from her husband, homeless, buried in debt and faces misdemeanor charges for shoplifting. Not coincidentally, it was three years ago that Sharon’s doctor wrote a prescription for Abilify to treat her depression. She had informed her doctor that her current medication, Zoloft, was no longer working. She began taking both medications simultaneously.

It wasn’t long before the gambling started. Recently, Sharon has been arrested several times for petty larceny. She’s not the only one who has been affected by Abilify. When she failed to pay her rent for several months, her landlord, an antique dealer who relied on that income, was forced to rent out his own home and move in with his parents. Despite his efforts to work out an opportunity with Sharon to catch up, he is unlikely to recover all of the money he is owed.

Sharon’s story is similar to many others who found themselves suffering from impulse control issues once they started taking Abilify. A paper published in the April 2011 issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry reported three cases of patients whose propensity to gamble intensified after taking Abilify. One of those patients had been a compulsive gambler for well over a decade. Shorty after his psychiatrist prescribed Abilify, the patient reported being obsessed with gambling.

According to the article, “his gambling activity became both impulsive and involved extensive planning in obtaining funds to gamble, including the use of crime.” Another patient said that gambling had become his entire reason for living. Whereas he had been spending about half his income on gambling before taking Abilify, he was spending virtually all of it while on the medication. The third patient who had never gambled before began experiencing “strong urges to gamble,” along with a “euphoric feeling when thinking about gambling.”

This is exactly how Abilify works. By overstimulating dopamine receptors in the brain, senses of pleasure are greatly intensified. This was the finding of a study published in the journal Addictive Behaviors over three years ago. Researchers had found that dopamine replacement therapy was a major risk factor in development compulsive behaviors and an inability to control addictions. These behaviors also include compulsive shopping and hypersexual behavior.

Within two years of being on Abilify, the third patient had racked up debts of £25,000 (approximately $38,000 USD at the time) from gambling at Internet casinos. In all of the aforementioned cases, the gambling behaviors were either greatly reduced or disappeared altogether once Abilify was discontinued.

Although compulsive gambling has been listed as a possible side effect on labels of Abilify and its generic versions, it is weak and fails to describe just how serious the problem can be. Neither has it adequately warned of other behaviors that may result from taking the medication.

Although new warnings were added this past May, it’s too little too late for people like Sharon. The question now is – if Otsuka America and Bristol-Myers Squibb were aware of these behavioral issues, why weren’t stronger warnings issued?

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.