“What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.” – Joan Didion, Play It as It Lays
There’s a theory floating around the Internet that psychotropic drugs are linked to individuals who perpetrate mass killings, shootings and commit suicide. While there’s certainly evidence to suggest that many of the perpetrators of those aforementioned acts were or had taken mood-altering medication, the underlying implication is that these drugs are a causal force in that individual’s homicidal or suicidal actions.
The latest example that keeps surfacing is a 2013 article written by Dan Roberts of AmmoLand, provocatively titled, “Nearly Every Mass Shooting in the Last 20 Years Shares One Thing in Common, & It’s NOT Weapons,” which claims that “credible scientific studies” and “internal documents from certain pharmaceutical companies” show that “SSRI drugs (Selective Serotonin Re-Uptake Inhibitors)” have “well known, but unreported side effects, including but not limited to suicide an other violent behavior.”
While there may be some validity to that statement when it comes to those drugs in isolated cases, the considered argument that these drugs are responsible for pushing a larger population at risk of violent behavior over the edge into acting on malicious thoughts and ideations is tenuous, in my opinion. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a physician or mental health professional or clinical researcher, so one could safely argue that discussing this subject is beyond my area of expertise. That said, there are some facts I think one needs to consider before one makes a judgment on the matter.
Mainly, one needs to examine trends in the usage of psychotropic drugs, specifically if those trends correspond to relative increases or decreases in crime rates, suicide rates, and instances of mass murder.
According to a 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal, the use of psychiatric medications among adults grew 22 percent from 2001 to 2010 to the point where in 2010 approximately one in five adults took at least one psychiatric drug, e.g. antidepressants, antipsychotics and anti-anxiety medications. Meanwhile, over the same period of time, all crime — property crime, violent crime and the homicide rate, including the gun-related homicide rate — declined. The suicide rate from 2001 to 2012 rose slightly from 10.4 per 100,000 people per year in 2001 to 12.5 per 100,000 per year in 2012, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Finally, as it relates to mass shootings which is arguably the category that grabs most of the headlines, there has not been a sstatistically significant increase from 2001 to 2010.
To quote James Alan Fox, an expert on mass killings and the Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law & Public Policy at Northern University:
Over the past three decades, there has been an average of 20 mass shootings a year in the United States, each with at least four victims killed by gunfire. Occasionally, and mostly by sheer coincidence, several episodes have been clustered closely in time. Over all, however, there has not been an upward trajectory. To the contrary, the real growth has been in the style and pervasiveness of news-media coverage, thanks in large part to technological advances in reporting.
To recap, usage of psychotropic drugs has become more common over the past decade, yet gun-related crime has decreased and there’s been no upward trajectory in mass shootings. Suicides, however, have increased.
Given these trends, I’d argue that if these drugs were the trigger that some claim them to be we’d ultimately see a uniform rise in all three categories with a positive correlation that reflects the jump in the usage of these drugs (22 percent rise). Yet, that is not what we see. To state the obvious in this case, correlation does not equal causation. Yes, many murderers, mass shooters and suicide victims have been on these drugs just prior to or at the time they committed the act, but that doesn’t mean that the drugs precipitated the violent behavior. Not to say that it didn’t in some cases or that meds can’t have this effect, but by and large there isn’t enough evidence to indict psychotropic drugs as a consistent catalyst for homicidal and suicidal actions — again, in my opinion.
It should also be noted that there is a danger in publicly stigmatizing the millions and millions of people who take mood-altering medication. It should be rather obvious. See, if we condemn them all as defectives, suggesting they’re one dose away from killing themselves or others due to their mental struggles, it opens the door for feckless politicians to enact laws that would strip away the Second Amendment rights of any and all persons who take medication which would be a devastating overreaction. Sadly, I fear that this line of reasoning is beginning to rear its head in New York state.
Here is the list that Roberts references in his article. I can’t vouch for the veracity of any of the information on the list. But I figured I’d reference it for your convenience:
- Eric Harris age 17 (first on Zoloft then Luvox) and Dylan Klebold aged 18 (Columbine school shooting in Littleton, Colorado), killed 12 students and 1 teacher, and wounded 23 others, before killing themselves. Klebold’s medical records have never been made available to the public.
- Jeff Weise, age 16, had been prescribed 60 mg/day of Prozac (three times the average starting dose for adults!) when he shot his grandfather, his grandfather’s girlfriend and many fellow students at Red Lake, Minnesota. He then shot himself. 10 dead, 12 wounded.
- Cory Baadsgaard, age 16, Wahluke (Washington state) High School, was on Paxil (which caused him to have hallucinations) when he took a rifle to his high school and held 23 classmates hostage. He has no memory of the event.
- Chris Fetters, age 13, killed his favorite aunt while taking Prozac.
- Christopher Pittman, age 12, murdered both his grandparents while taking Zoloft.
- Mathew Miller, age 13, hung himself in his bedroom closet after taking Zoloft for 6 days.
- Kip Kinkel, age 15, (on Prozac and Ritalin) shot his parents while they slept then went to school and opened fire killing 2 classmates and injuring 22 shortly after beginning Prozac treatment.
- Luke Woodham, age 16 (Prozac) killed his mother and then killed two students, wounding six others.
- A boy in Pocatello, ID (Zoloft) in 1998 had a Zoloft-induced seizure that caused an armed stand off at his school.
- Michael Carneal (Ritalin), age 14, opened fire on students at a high school prayer meeting in West Paducah, Kentucky. Three teenagers were killed, five others were wounded..
- A young man in Huntsville, Alabama (Ritalin) went psychotic chopping up his parents with an ax and also killing one sibling and almost murdering another.
- Andrew Golden, age 11, (Ritalin) and Mitchell Johnson, aged 14, (Ritalin) shot 15 people, killing four students, one teacher, and wounding 10 others.
- TJ Solomon, age 15, (Ritalin) high school student in Conyers, Georgia opened fire on and wounded six of his class mates.
- Rod Mathews, age 14, (Ritalin) beat a classmate to death with a bat.
- James Wilson, age 19, (various psychiatric drugs) from Breenwood, South Carolina, took a .22 caliber revolver into an elementary school killing two young girls, and wounding seven other children and two teachers.
- Elizabeth Bush, age 13, (Paxil) was responsible for a school shooting in Pennsylvania
- Jason Hoffman (Effexor and Celexa) – school shooting in El Cajon, California
- Jarred Viktor, age 15, (Paxil), after five days on Paxil he stabbed his grandmother 61 times.
- Chris Shanahan, age 15 (Paxil) in Rigby, ID who out of the blue killed a woman.
- Jeff Franklin (Prozac and Ritalin), Huntsville, AL, killed his parents as they came home from work using a sledge hammer, hatchet, butcher knife and mechanic’s file, then attacked his younger brothers and sister.
- Neal Furrow (Prozac) in LA Jewish school shooting reported to have been court-ordered to be on Prozac along with several other medications.
- Kevin Rider, age 14, was withdrawing from Prozac when he died from a gunshot wound to his head. Initially it was ruled a suicide, but two years later, the investigation into his death was opened as a possible homicide. The prime suspect, also age 14, had been taking Zoloft and other SSRI antidepressants.
- Alex Kim, age 13, hung himself shortly after his Lexapro prescription had been doubled.
- Diane Routhier was prescribed Welbutrin for gallstone problems. Six days later, after suffering many adverse effects of the drug, she shot herself.
- Billy Willkomm, an accomplished wrestler and a University of Florida student, was prescribed Prozac at the age of 17. His family found him dead of suicide – hanging from a tall ladder at the family’s Gulf Shore Boulevard home in July 2002.
- Kara Jaye Anne Fuller-Otter, age 12, was on Paxil when she hung herself from a hook in her closet. Kara’s parents said “…. the damn doctor wouldn’t take her off it and I asked him to when we went in on the second visit. I told him I thought she was having some sort of reaction to Paxil…”)
- Gareth Christian, Vancouver, age 18, was on Paxil when he committed suicide in 2002,
- (Gareth’s father could not accept his son’s death and killed himself.)
- Julie Woodward, age 17, was on Zoloft when she hung herself in her family’s detached garage.
- Matthew Miller was 13 when he saw a psychiatrist because he was having difficulty at school. The psychiatrist gave him samples of Zoloft. Seven days later his mother found him dead, hanging by a belt from a laundry hook in his closet.
- Kurt Danysh, age 18, and on Prozac, killed his father with a shotgun. He is now behind prison bars, and writes letters, trying to warn the world that SSRI drugs can kill.
- Woody ____, age 37, committed suicide while in his 5th week of taking Zoloft. Shortly before his death his physician suggested doubling the dose of the drug. He had seen his physician only for insomnia. He had never been depressed, nor did he have any history of any mental illness symptoms.
- A boy from Houston, age 10, shot and killed his father after his Prozac dosage was increased.
- Hammad Memon, age 15, shot and killed a fellow middle school student. He had been diagnosed with ADHD and depression and was taking Zoloft and “other drugs for the conditions.”
- Matti Saari, a 22-year-old culinary student, shot and killed 9 students and a teacher, and wounded another student, before killing himself. Saari was taking an SSRI and a benzodiazapine.
- Steven Kazmierczak, age 27, shot and killed five people and wounded 21 others before killing himself in a Northern Illinois University auditorium. According to his girlfriend, he had recently been taking Prozac, Xanax and Ambien. Toxicology results showed that he still had trace amounts of Xanax in his system.
- Finnish gunman Pekka-Eric Auvinen, age 18, had been taking antidepressants before he killed eight people and wounded a dozen more at Jokela High School – then he committed suicide.
- Asa Coon from Cleveland, age 14, shot and wounded four before taking his own life. Court records show Coon was on Trazodone.
- Jon Romano, age 16, on medication for depression, fired a shotgun at a teacher in his
- New York high school.
Missing from list… 3 of 4 known to have taken these same meds….
- What drugs was Jared Lee Loughner on, age 21…… killed 6 people and injuring 14 others in Tuscon, Az
- What drugs was James Eagan Holmes on, age 24….. killed 12 people and injuring 59 others in Aurora Colorado
- What drugs was Jacob Tyler Roberts on, age 22, killed 2 injured 1, Clackamas Or
- What drugs was Adam Peter Lanza on, age 20, Killed 26 and wounded 2 in Newtown Ct
To single out mass killings for a moment because that is the central concern of this article, if the drugs aren’t to blame, then what is?
From my vantage point there is an innate human impulse to understand agency, to understand what motivates people to act in the manner they do. This curiosity is of course heightened when it relates to depredations, like mass shootings, that go so far beyond our comprehension of what is moral and decent and just that we are dumbfounded at the mere conception of them. For instance, we want to know why Adam Lanza brutally gunned down 20 school children and six staffers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December of 2012. What could compel someone to act in such an abhorrent way?
Unfortunately, there are no satisfying answers. And we must fight the impulse to blame it on the media or video games or drugs or guns or bad parenting or any other trigger that one may mention because when it comes to sociopaths of this magnitude (I’m not talking about the general population for which there are certain factors that can spell trouble for at-risk youth and teens, i.e. fatherlessness, substance abuse, physical abuse, etc. but of this rare breed of miscreants and evildoers), they did it because they were evil men. What makes them evil? To riff off of the Joan Didion, Some people ask. I never ask. But I do own a firearm in case these sociopaths come knocking on my door.
Here is a video from Boiling Frogs Post that addresses the subject. It is a lot to talk about and we’d love to hear from you below in the comments.