Psychiatric Meds: Prescription for Murder?

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In a frenzied cry for gun-control, the media is rife with details about the firearms Adam Lanza used to kill 20 children and six adults before turning a handgun on himself at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012. But information about Lanza’s medical history is scarce, feeding speculation that he may fit the profile of school shooters under the influence of psychotherapeutic medication.

“In virtually every mass school shooting during the past 15 years, the shooter has been on or in withdrawal from psychiatric drugs,” observed Lawrence Hunter of the Social Security Institute. “Yet, federal and state governments continue to ignore the connection between psychiatric drugs and murderous violence, preferring instead to exploit these tragedies in an oppressive and unconstitutional power grab to snatch guns away from innocent, law-abiding people who are guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution the right to own and bear arms to deter government tyranny and to use firearms in self defense against any miscreant who would do them harm.”

There is a striking connection between school shootings and psychotherapeutic drugs, also known as psychotropics. Consider these examples:

  • Toby Sincino, a 15-year-old who shot two teachers and himself in 1995 at his South Carolina school, was taking the antidepressant Zoloft.
  • Kip Kinkel, an Oregon teen who murdered his parents and proceeded on a shooting rampage at his high school in 1998, killed two and wounded 25 while in Prozac withdrawal.
  • Shawn Cooper fired two shotgun rounds in 1999 at his Idaho high school while on an antidepressant.
  • T.J. Solomon, Jr. was 15 years old when he shot six classmates in Atlanta in 1999. He was taking Ritalin and was also being treated for depression.
  • Eric Harris was one of the assailants at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. His autopsy revealed a therapeutic level of the antidepressant Luvox in his system.
  • Jason Hoffman wounded five people with a shotgun at his California high school in 2001 while on two antidepressant medications, Celexa and Effexor.
  • Jeffrey Weise, a student at Red Lake High School in Minnesota, killed 10 and wounded seven in 2005 while on Prozac.
  • Matti Saari, a college student in Finland, shot and killed 10 people before committing suicide at his university in 2008. The Finnish Ministry of Justice later reported he was taking an antidepressant and an anti-anxiety medication.
  • Steve Kazmierczak killed six including himself at Northern Illinois University in 2008 while in withdrawal from the antidepressant Prozac.
  • Tim Kretschmer murdered 15 students and teachers at his secondary school in Germany in 2009, and then committed suicide. Police reported Kretschmer was taking prescriptions to treat depression.

A 2002 Fox News interview with Cory Baadsgaard sheds some light on the possible mental state of these criminals. The year before, at age 16, Baadsgaard held a high-school class hostage at gunpoint in Washington state. Fortunately, no one was killed or physically hurt during the incident. The young man remembers the day in this way: “In the morning I didn’t feel like going to school. I felt sick; didn’t feel like I could get up very well. So I went back to bed. And the next thing I remember I’m in juvie in the detention center where I used to live.” Baadsgaard says he has no memory of the incident. He was tried as an adult but spent only 14 months in prison because expert psychiatric testimony convinced the jury his crime was the result of adverse reactions the antidepressants Effexor and Paxil.

Despite the abundance of such evidence and a glut of scientific studies proving real danger, “there has yet to be a federal investigation on the link between psychiatric drugs and acts of senseless violence,” according to the Citizens Commission on Human Rights International (CCHRI), a non-profit mental health watchdog group. CCHRI states that government officials are well aware of the connection. “Between 2004 and 2011, there have been over 11,000 reports to the U.S. FDA’s MedWatch system of psychiatric drug side effects related to violence,” including 300 homicides. The FDA estimates this total is less than 10 percent of the actual number of incidents since most go unreported.

However, there has been little government action at all, with one exception. Due to the “large body of scientific research establishing a connection between violence and suicide and the use of psychotropic drugs,” the New York State Senate introduced a bill in 2000 to “require police to report to the Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), certain crimes and suicides committed by persons using psychotropic drugs.” The bill died in committee, and the issue remains unresolved.

Instead, in response to the Sandy Hook tragedy and ignoring the obvious, Senator Toni Nathaniel Harp and Representative Toni E. Walker, both Democrats of the Connecticut General Assembly, introduced Bill 374, “requiring behavioral health assessments for children,” mandating psychiatric testing for public school students in grades 6, 8, 10, and 12 and for homeschooled children at ages 12, 14, and 17. The assessments would have to be reported to the State Board of Education, and there is great likelihood that more children would end up on psychiatric meds after such tests.

There is also plenty of official agitation for gun control. Hunter suggests instead, “It is pharmaceutical makers, not law-abiding gun owners or gun manufacturers, who should be held to account for the series of ‘lone-wolf’ mass shootings that have occurred since the widespread use of psychiatric drugs began.”

Drugs on the Firing Line

Antidepressants are psychiatric drugs that form a common thread in school shootings. There are five categories of anti­depressants: selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRI), monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI), tricyclic antidepressants (TCA), and atypical antidepressants. Despite the moniker, doctors prescribe these medicines for much more than depression. They use them to treat such ailments as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder, bulimia nervosa, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder (SAD), premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Other suspect medications, such as Ritalin, Adderal, and Concerta, are sympathomimetic amines, prescribed to treat ADHD.

These medicines act on the body’s nervous system – altering its chemical communication pathways to affect areas of the brain involved in judgment, abstract reasoning, memory, emotions, and the fight-or-flight response – explains Michelle Morrison-Valfre, MHS, FNP in her 2005 book, Foundations of Mental Health Care. The expected result is a calm mood and clear thinking. However, in some cases unexpected results occur.

The Physicians’ Desk Reference (PDR), an authoritative source of all FDA-approved drug labeling information, identifies the potential hazardous side effects of psychotherapeutics, including suicidal and homicidal ideation. Unfortunately, such effects are not uncommon. In fact, when taking a particular medication poses serious risks, the FDA requires drug manufacturers to highlight the dangers in eye-catching boxes on pharmaceutical packaging. A drug’s “black box warning” alerts consumers to the major hazards they face when taking that medicine. Most prescriptions do not have black box warnings – only those that can cause extreme adverse reactions compared to the potential benefit. Among psychotherapeutics’ black box warnings are:

  • “Increased risk of suicidal ideation in short-term studies in children and adolescents with ADHD.” (Strattera, SNRI)
  • “Antidepressants increased risk of suicidal thinking and behavior (suicidality) in short-term studies in children, adolescents and young adults with major depressive disorder and other psychiatric disorders.” (Zoloft, SSRI)
  • “Monitor appropriately and observe closely for clinical worsening, suicidality or unusual changes in behavior for all patients who are started on antidepressant therapy.” (Parnate, MAOI)
  • “High potential for abuse; avoid prolonged use. Misuse of amphetamine may cause sudden death and serious cardiovascular events.” (Adderal, sympathomimetic amine)

Additionally, all depression and ADHD therapies contain FDA-mandated warnings for caregivers to monitor for suicidal thinking, worsening of depression symptoms, and unusual changes in behavior. Patients taking the tricyclic Elavil are cautioned to “seek medical attention for symptoms of mania, increasing psychosis or paranoia.” Literature warns parents of children on Ritalin that “stimulants at usual doses can cause treatment emergent psychotic or manic symptoms (hallucinations, delusional thinking, mania) in children and adolescents without prior history of psychotic illness.” (Emphasis added.) The PDR also reports clinical trials have identified aggressive behavior and hostility as notable side effects of ADHD medications.

The advent of these drugs coincides disturbingly with a rise in the adolescent suicide rate. Ritalin was introduced in 1956. Antidepressants made their debut in the early 1960s, according to Morrison-Valfre, who noted elsewhere in her text that statistics from the U.S. Bureau of the Census reveal, “from 1960 to 2000 the rate of adolescent suicide more than doubled.” This may be coincidental, but it is unnerving in light of these drugs’ well-known adverse effects.

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