The Drugs Don’t Work

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.

Date Location Deaths Injuries Perpetrator Age Drug
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?

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4 thoughts on “The Drugs Don’t Work

  1. It’s not just the drug but the patients who either stop taking the meds because they are feeling fine or do not like the way it makes them feel. Then there are those whom, while they are prescribed the drug, they sell it, or use it in a way not intended. Add to it the time taken, missed doses, interaction with other drugs (vitamins, natural medicine, & even food), and there are just too many factors. I am totally against drugs for these & so many other reasons. I do see where they can be advantageous to some but as an overall, they are detrimental on so many levels. It also takes approx 4-6 weeks for a pill taken daily to get in our bloodstream and “start working” properly. In the meantime, the patient is desperate & giving up hope. Perhaps when the effect actually starts to affect him, he needs to know what to expect, because it’s not a magic wand of I feel good or normal. It is more of an ease into (more) emptiness, dulled emotion & less human. It takes away the parts of us that keeps us from killing (empathy, connection, etc) & deepens the causes (dulled senses/emotion, being outcast or different or wrong…hopeless & empty). It’s the age old chicken & egg, but these drugs have been so flippantly used as a cure all for so long & not administered properly, or observed long enough in a controlled setting. IMO anyway. Sorry, good blog & on a subject, well, I have strong opinions about 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A great comment, and I agree with you. I’ve actually heard that people often improve before the drug could possibly have started working yet, which is another indication of the big part that the placebo effect plays here. There are just too many question marks about these drugs.

      Liked by 1 person

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