01/15/2013 08:14 EST | Updated 03/17/2013 05:12 EDT

When It Comes to School Shootings, Drugs Aren't the Problem


As absurd as it may seem, there is a myth that continues to grow after mass shootings and that is that the cause of these shootings are psychiatric medications themselves. A January 8 letter to the Toronto Star headlined "Preventing Another Newtown" pointed out that "The perpetrators of almost every mass shooting were on psychotropic drugs." An article in the conservative online magazine The American Thinker on January 9, by Charles Grant and Greg Lewis is titled "It's The Drugs, Stupid!"

Dr. Grant is an alternative medicine practitioner who deals with addictions. He specializes in "molecular health and healing, especially as it supports psychospiritual growth and mental health recovery from problems." Greg Lewis works with Grant but there is no biographical information for him. What they say in this article is "in every single gun massacre over the past several decades for which we have reliable information about drug use, the shooter has been taking psychotropic drugs prescribed by a physician." Note that the "proof" they cite is based on an article published on Citizens Commission On Human Rights International website. According to Wikipedia, this is a Scientology front that campaigns against psychiatry.

On the CNN show State of the Union on January 13, Tennessee Republican Congresswoman, Marsha Blackburn, stated that psychiatric drugs are linked to individuals who carried out these crimes. She was not challenged by the host, Candy Crawley, or any of the other panelists.

Earlier writings about medications and drugs came from author Robert Whittaker. In aPsychology Today blog, he talks about the role of antidepressants causing violence (not anti-psychotics used to treat the delusions of psychosis) and states:

"In light of this finding (of reported violent adverse events and antidepressants), the many past shootings at school campuses and other public venues should perhaps be investigated anew by government officials, with an eye toward ascertaining whether psychotropic use may have, in the manner of an adverse event, triggered that violence."

He does not provide evidence that shootings involved the use of medications but only that this link should be investigated.

So, what are the facts based on the best evidence available? A study published in June of 2012 concluded that antidepressants reduced suicidal thoughts and behaviour. There were over 9,000 patients in the study using two different antidepressants -- fluoxetine (Prozac) and venlafaxine (effexor). This confirms the results of other studies with young people.

As for anti-psychotics which are used to treat the delusions of psychosis and schizophrenia, a study published in 2010 found that the rate of homicides committed during a first episode psychotic break before treatment was 1.59 homicides per 1,000 patients. "The annual rate of homicide after treatment for psychosis was 0.11 homicides per 1,000 patients." The authors concluded, "the rate of homicide in the first episode of psychosis appears to be higher than previously recognized, whereas the annual rate of homicide by patients with schizophrenia after treatment is lower than previous estimates. Earlier treatment of first-episode psychosis might prevent some homicides."

The Treatment Advocacy Center in the U.S. has done a backgrounder on the topic of violence and schizophrenia looking at all studies around the world on the subject. They conclude that "a small number of individuals with serious mental illnesses commit acts of violence, including 5 - 10 per cent of all homicides. Almost all of these acts of violence are committed by individuals who are not being treated, and many such individuals are also abusing alcohol or drugs."

They cite 12 studies that demonstrate that most acts of violence are committed by people who are not being treated. The most recent study, from 2010, showed that most acts were carried out during the person's first psychotic episode before they were treated.

A common expression in society to describe strange behaviour is "he must be off his meds." I've yet to hear anyone say "he must be on meds to act that way." The average person understands.