Finasteride (Propecia) is the only approved orally administered drug available for treating male pattern baldness. For years, the full scale of its side effects have been hidden, but the unsealing of lawsuits in 2019 revealed hundreds of cases of suicides and suicidal thoughts.
Propecia, manufactured and marketed by Merck, is a brand name of the generic drug, finasteride. Finasteride was originally developed as a treatment for an enlarged prostate but its effectiveness in treating male pattern baldness was also recognised. With two-thirds of men experiencing some level of male pattern baldness before the age of 35, Merck saw the lucrative opportunities and rolled out their product, Propecia.
Like most drugs, finasteride (and therefore Propecia) has its side effects, the most common being a reduction in libido and erectile dysfunction. But other side effects are cause for more concern. A suicide in 2015 led the widow to file a lawsuit against Merck after suspecting both sexual dysfunction, depression and thoughts of suicide by her husband were linked to the drug, Propecia. This lawsuit was one of over 1,100 filed across the USA. In an effort to protect Merck's reputation and loss in revenue, the courts sealed the lawsuits. Article here.
In 2019, a judge granted Reuters the motion to unseal 11 documents filed against Merck alleging side effects of sexual dysfunction and suicide. Article here. It was revealed that 700 reports existed of suicide and suicidal thoughts, including 100 deaths, among people taking Propecia. With such a lucrative product, Merck avoided transparency on the mental effects of Propecia, choosing to not include depression and suicidal thoughts as a side effect. As early as 2009, Merck knew about 200 reports of depression, including suicidal thoughts, but decided the numbers were too few to issue a warning with the product.
Since the investigation, Merck have paid out $4.3m in compensation.