The recent shooting in Oregano has once more brought up debate about what is causing this madness. There are several theories, one of which is prevalent drug use. When I say drug use, I’m not talking about street drugs. I’m talking about psychoactive prescription drugs. One in ten people in America is taking an anti-depressant. There are no details about whether the Oregon shooter was taking any drugs, but his Internet alias “Lithium love” seems to suggest it.
A recent Swedish study that came out just a few weeks before the Oregon case investigated the incidence of violent crime in young people aged 15 to 24. They found that using anti-depressants in the SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) family caused a 43% increase in convictions for violent crime in this age group. (Brand names for SSRI-drugs are Celexa, Lexapro, Prozac, Luvox, Paxil, Zoloft.)
No one knows how these drugs work precisely, since the initial hypothesis of depression being caused by a serotonin deficit doesn’t seem to pass muster. In double-blind controlled placebo studies the effectiveness of these drugs for treating mild to moderate depression is generally not much, if any better than that of a placebo. Suicidal thoughts are a fairly common side-effect for youngsters. Other psychoactive drugs share these problems.
I thought it would be interesting to look at the mass shootings committed by young people in American schools and see how many of the killers were taking some kind of psychoactive drug. Wikipedia has a list of the shootings. I started in the 80s, including only the gravest cases with at least five people dead or wounded. I only included killers up to 24 years of age to get an idea of the young population.
|September 26, 1988||Greenwood, South Carolina||2||8||James William Wilson Jr.||19||Xanax, Valium|
|January 17, 1989||Stockton, California||6||32||Patrick Edward Purdy||24||Thorazine, Amitriptyline|
|May 1, 1992||Olivehurst, California||4||10||Eric Houston||20||None|
|December 14, 1992||Great Barrington, Massachusetts||2||4||Wayne Lo||18||None|
|October 1, 1997||Pearl, Mississippi||3||7||Luke Woodham||16||Prozac|
|December 1, 1997||West Paducah, Kentucky||3||5||Michael Carneal||14||Ritalin|
|March 24, 1998||Craighead County, Arkansas||5||10||Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden||11, 14||Ritalin for both|
|May 21, 1998||Springfield, Oregon||4||23||Kip Kinkel||Prozac, Ritalin|
|April 20, 1999||Littleton, Colorado||15||21||Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold||18, 17||SSRI (Harris), eyewitness accounts of Klebold taking SSRI drugs but medical records sealed|
|May 20, 1999||Conyers, Georgia||0||6||T.J. Solomon||15||Ritalin|
|December 6, 1999||Fort Gibson, Oklahoma||0||6||Seth Trickey||12||Medical records sealed, but was being treated|
|March 5, 2001||Santee, California||2||13||Charles Andrew Williams||15||Marijuana|
|March 22, 2001||El Cajon, California||0||5||Jason Hoffman||18||Celexa, Effexor|
|March 21, 2005||Red Lake, Minnesota||10||7||Jeffrey Weise||16||Prozac|
|April 16, 2007||Blacksburg, Virginia||33||25||Seung-Hui Cho||23||Antidepressants, brand not specified|
|October 10, 2007||Cleveland, Ohio||1||4||Asa Coon||14||Trazodone|
|January 9, 2009||Chicago, Illinois||0||5||Georgio Dukes||18||No reports, gang-related|
|February 27, 2012||Chardon, Ohio||3||3||T.J. Lane||17||None|
|December 14, 2012||Newtown, Connecticut||28||2||Adam Lanza||20||None, previous adverse reactions to Celexa|
|June 7, 2013||Santa Monica, California||6||4||John Zawahri||23||Previously hospitalized for mental health problems, no mention of drugs|
|May 23, 2014||Isla Vista, California||7||13||Elliot Rodger||22||Xanax, not clear whether he was taking it|
|October 24, 2014||Marysville, Washington||5||1||Jaylen Fryberg||15||Marijuana|
According to my calculations, 13 out of 24 cases were definitely taking prescription drugs for a mental health condition. That would amount to a little over a half. Ritalin and the SSRIs seemed to be the most common culprits. Four people’s medical records were not made available and in the case of Elliot Rodger, it was not clear whether he was actually taking the drugs prescribed to him, so the count might be even higher.
What does all this mean?
Does it mean that psychoactive drugs cause violent crime? Correlation does not imply causation, so just the fact that violent crime and psychoactive drug use seem to be correlated, does not mean that drugs cause violence. There are ample grounds for making that hypothesis, though, so the link should be further investigated.
Does it mean that these people committed the crimes since they were mentally unwell? I’d say so. No sane person would do things like these. On the other hand, pretty much no insane person would commit crimes like these, either. This kind of senseless killing has started to happen more and more, while psychoactive drugs are prescribed more and more. Another interesting correlation.
Does this mean that everyone should get off psychoactive drugs? Probably not, and never without consulting a doctor. Some people do quite well on them and the experience of these people shouldn’t be minimized. Independent research should be conducted into the beneficial effects of the drugs.
Does it mean that if you are in this age-group and taking psychiatric medication you’re likely to go berserk at any moment? Of course not. The 43% increase in risk does not mean that 43% of youngsters taking these drugs commit crimes. It only means that the very small risk is increased by 43%. That is a notable increase and one that deserves careful attention, but on the population level it still means that most people are very unlikely to go on a killing spree even if provoked and medicated.
Does it mean that the risks and the benefits of these drugs should be inspected very, very carefully by independent institutions, not the same companies that gain financially from the sales of these drugs? Yes! Absolutely. That much should be obvious to everyone. Evaluation of risks cannot be left to the drug companies.
The take-home message is that we need to remember that these are potent drugs and no one understands exactly the effect they have on a person’s brain chemistry. No one knows. Most of the research into these drugs has been done by drug companies themselves, who often refuse to disclose their data for independent researchers to verify their results. Most of the research on the drugs’ safety has been done on adults, a population that differs from adolescents and children whose brains are still developing.
We are in the middle of a massive drug experiment. Wouldn’t it be much better to perform it in a lab?