In the wake of a tragedy such as the Theater 9 shooting in Aurora, Colorado, it becomes necessary to ask some tough questions about the possible causes so that in the future violence may be prevented. Guns are an obvious target here, but few commentators have considered the role that certain antidepressant medications have played in similar shootings over the last decade. Did they also play a role in the Aurora tragedy?
It has recently been revealed that James Holmes, the alleged Aurora Theater 9 shooter, was seeing a psychiatrist. While it is unknown at this time what specific psychiatric medications Holmes may have been taking, he would not be the first who while on various psychotropic drugs committed an act of homicidal or suicidal rage.
Nearly all of the recent shooters, from Columbine to Virginia Tech to the Rep. Gifford case (as well as many other, less publicized instances) had been receiving some sort of mental health treatment when they unleashed violence on their friends, colleagues, or loved ones. It is not in fact the case, as some mental health pundits suggest, that many of these shooters were not getting help. Quite the opposite – many shooters were often on medications, drugs that could have caused their violent behavior.
Journalist Allison Bass, author of Side Effects, whose reporting at the Boston Globe was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, has this eye-opening post on her blog about the corpse-littered history of antidepressants. She writes: “In the 25 years since Prozac and the other SSRI antidepressants have been on the market, there has been a long litany of cases like Crespi’s, where someone with no history of violence, became agitated and violent after taking these drugs, either killing themselves or their loved ones.” Many more stories documenting such unexpected, violent behavior in the wake of antidepressant use can be found on SSRIStories.
The military world is no exception to the apparent antidepressant-induced violence. Dr. Peter Breggin writes about a spectacular increase in violence among U.S. servicemen that correlates with a significant increase in use of antidepressants, concluding that the drugs are dangerous and cause in some who take them homicidal or suicidal fury: “antidepressants never cure biochemical imbalances. Instead, they always cause them. There are no known biochemical imbalances in the brains of depressed people until they start taking toxic psychiatric drugs and every person who takes one of these drugs end up with a significant biochemical disturbance in the brain. That’s how the drugs work – by disrupting normal biochemical processes in the brain.” The bottom line, according to Breggin: “Antidepressants are a hoax – in this case, a hoax that is killing members of our armed services.”
According to “Antidepressants and Violence: Problems at the Interface of Medicine and Law”, there are several mechanisms that link violence to antidepressants. These are: increased restlessness, insomnia, and anxiety; emotional blunting; outright psychosis; and somnambulism or sleepwalking.
Despite the scientific evidence and knowledge by the FDA and the pharmaceutical companies that in a small percent of users of antidepressants will exhibit violent and aggressive behavior, society and the courts have struggled with the issue of drug-induced violence. Part of the reason for this difficulty is cultural: as is often the case in tragedies such as that which took place in Aurora, CO, the normal desire is to find justice for the victims. In that context, suggestions that imply that a shooter may have been acting under the influence of a drug and therefore his culpability is either lessened or he cannot be held responsible at all for the act, can be quite upsetting. Yet ignoring the possibility that drugs could be a major contributing factor in such violent episodes in fact enables future violence because punishments in these instances cannot deter future crime – not when the drugs themselves may be at fault.