Media reporting after rampage shootings, such as the one that occurred in Aurora, Colorado, in late July, invariably focus on gun control, fueling not inappropriate outrage at some of the inadequacies in American law regarding the ease with which lethal weapons can be legally purchased.
This focus misses a big part of the picture. The perpetrators of these atrocities — some of which have been planned obsessively for weeks, if not months — are often in bizarre mental states. The website www.ssristories.com (no longer being updated due to the passing of the dedicated administrator, Rosie Meysenburg) is a lay advocate’s effort to catalogue rampage shootings over the past couple of decades from media reports. It is no coincidence to those who are familiar with the debilitating and disabling effects of psychiatric drugs that many perpetrators had a history of psychiatric drug use and abuse that was reported in the media. These are catalogued by drug and type of event in a searchable database on the SSRI Stories website. Many well-researched studies related to violence and psychiatric drugs have been published in reputable journals. Indeed, a recent study found that “in general, antidepressants are neither safe nor effective; they appear to do more harm than good.”
We need better gun and weapon control, but we also need much better monitoring of prescription medication use and abuse as well as an accurate tabulation of outcomes (short- and long-term) related to treatment protocols. (See Robert Whitaker’s excellent book Anatomy of an Epidemicfor a discussion of this issue.) We need to understand just what power these drugs — the antidepressants, the anti-psychotics, the hypnotics and the painkillers — have to alter and change judgment, including moral judgment (the difference between good and evil), impulsivity and empathy. Some studies have shown that SSRIs can even change sleep architecture in a profound way that allow people to be dreaming while apparently awake.
Evidence suggests that the problem of seemingly random violence may be located in the mind of the perpetrator and, in combination with easy access to guns, leads to shocking and deadly outcomes. When the mind has been altered iatrogenically through the use of prescribed medications, we are dealing with an “elephant in the room” that should no longer be ignored. Nor should we ignore the fact that too often these drugs are prescribed by licensed doctors who appear to be ignorant of potential adverse reactions and the risks they are creating. Solving the problem of how psychotropic drugs can potentially create pure evil and wreak havoc in our world faces many challenges, including the privacy rights of individuals being treated, the lack of public access to prescription drug treatment records and the iron grip that the pharmaceutical industry has on clinical research, ensuring that almost no negative findings ever see the light of day.
Immediately following the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre (PDF) a lockdown of medical information about the perpetrator, Seung-Hui Cho, seemed to go into high gear. In early reports a roommate reported seeing Cho, who had a history of treatment for anxiety, taking a medication the morning of the massacre, and there was speculation he may have been taking Accutane for acne. This was later omitted from media reports. His records from the counselling department mysteriously disappeared for two years but were finally found in the home of the counsellor who had been dismissed from his job shortly before Cho’s rampage and had taken the records home when he cleaned out his office. These records, published in 2009, two years after the massacre, reveal a recommendation for outside counselling but no apparent follow-up or follow-through by Cho. There is no evidence in the records that Cho was taking medications prescribed to him by a doctor except possibly for a skin condition. He had however taken antidepressant medication in 1999 (in other reports confirmed as Paxil) for a year as an eighth grader because of shyness and anxiety. While the long-term effect of taking this at such a young age has never been scientifically demonstrated, there is the possibility this did influence his development in some way.
The Columbine shooters were both in treatment for anger management and this was underplayed during the investigation. It was only because Eric Harris, one of the shooters, applied to be in the military that we learned he was on antidepressants. To my knowledge the complete records have never been disclosed and may now have been destroyed. According to a lawsuit brought by the first student shot at Columbine against the drug maker Solvay, Harris was initially prescribed Zoloft, but after he became “restless and unable to concentrate” by his own report, he was switched to Luvox which he took for two years before the massacre. He had therapeutic levels of Luvox in his system at the time of his death.
Luvox, manufactured by Solvay, is reported to be 8.4 times more likely to be associated with violence than other medications. This is the kind of fact that the public has a right to know.
Christopher Pittman, a 12-year-old who murdered his grandparents, in South Carolina in 2001, had also been on Paxil and Zoloft. The dosages and transitions between the two drugs were inappropriate for a boy of his size and weight and his grandparents may have improperly understood the dosage instructions written on a brown paper bag by the small town psychiatrist trying to help them out by giving them free samples. Pittman, when found the morning after the murders, clearly seemed to be in some disoriented state (between dreaming and waking?) that was misunderstood by law enforcement officers as deliberate cover-up of the events of the preceding evening. A lot of evidence regarding the effects of antidepressant drugs was not allowed in court due to arcane legal rules. Pfizer, the manufacturer of Zoloft, was in court objecting to each and every effort to introduce it as well. I was there and it was maddening because this research is relevant to these crimes.
In recent years more information has been revealed about the efforts by pharmaceutical companies to hide or dissemble research that has negative findings. Perhaps the Paxil Study 329 study is one of the most notorious examples in which clinical research that demonstrated an increase in suicidal thinking was somehow turned into a positive demonstration of Paxil’s effectiveness. This happens all the time and innocent doctors, who accept published research uncritically, base prescribing decisions to hundreds of patients, including children, on this “science.”
Something has to be done to stop psychiatrists and even general practitioners from prescribing drugs indiscriminately one after the other with no regard for withdrawal effects and in the knee jerk fashion that patients have come to expect. Adding drug upon drug to someone’s cocktail in an attempt to medicate away side effects of earlier drugs only compounds negative side effects. It is a shocking state of affairs. A lot is being written about prescription drugs unnecessarily killing and injuring the people who are taking them, but more attention needs to be drawn to the fact that prescription drugs may also play a role in killing innocent bystanders through mechanisms that lead them to becoming homicidal. Another factor, also rarely considered, is the combination of prescription with street drugs such as cannabis in terms of inciting violent acts.
James Holmes, the student who killed 12 and injured 50 people in a Colorado cinema, appeared in court clearly under the influence of drugs. He exhibited the phenomenon of so-called “Prozac eyes”, where his pupils were enlarged and his eyes were twitching. This is a phenomenon associated with altered sleep architecture and is the result of being in a REM state while appearing awake. At other times he looked like he was going to pass out. We now learn that he was being seen by a psychiatrist who had received an admonition for prescribing many different classes of drugs including Vicodin (that was in Holmes possession at the scene of the crime) to friends and family. These are the professionals we need to monitor and educate about the risks of the drugs under their control. The patients themselves experience bizarre changes and don’t understand where the changes are coming from and think they are going mad. Because of the biopyschiatric principles they are led to believe are absolute, they believe their brains are genetically determined and chemically imbalanced and can’t be fixed. No wonder they spew hate. A whole paradigm needs to be challenged and built from the ground up when it comes to mental health. It may be that this would go further to stopping these rampages than the best gun control in the world.
About the Contributor
Sara Bostock is a US prescription drug safety advocate. Her testimony at the FDA, along with others, was instrumental in getting a black box warning on antidepressants regarding an increase in suicidal thinking in children and young adults. She was a co-founder of SSRIstories.com along with Rosie Meysenburg (now deceased) and talks and writes frequently on prescription drug safety issues.