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In the aftermath of the recent massacre in Parkland, Florida, debate rages across the U.S. about gun control, mental illness, and the causes of mass shootings. It is only logical to say that the availability of guns must be a factor, but would gun control solve the problem? A gun is merely a piece of equipment after all; it is the human who pulls the trigger – so what causes a person to make that decision?
There are several explanations, as discussed by LN’s Onar Åm. One idea that has remained relatively marginal is that psychoactive drugs, particularly anti-depressants, are a common factor of many mass shooters. Is it possible that prescription psychiatric drugs have dangerous side-effects that can trigger such violence?
Psychiatric Drugs and Violence
By all accounts, the Parkland shooter was known to be mentally ill, and his family had sought treatment. His aunt told the Miami Herald that she believed he was medicated, and it’s reported that his mother told mental health investigators in 2016 that he had prescriptions for ADHD, autism, and depression.
This pattern appears in scores of incidents, with shooters either taking or withdrawing from drugs such as Zoloft, Prozac, Paxil, and so on. These drugs belong to a class called SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), which work by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of wellbeing. Yet these drugs can have extreme side-effects, including the risk of mania, violence, and obsessive suicidal intentions – particularly in children and teens, whose brains are still developing.
According to psychiatrist Peter Breggin, studies suggest that up to 10% of people taking these drugs could have an adverse reaction leading to violent behavior. Breggin testified to Congress in 2010, saying:
“There is overwhelming evidence that the SSRIs and other stimulating antidepressants cause suicidality and aggression in children and adults of all ages. The evidence suggests that young adults aged 18-24 …are especially at risk for antidepressant-induced suicidality…in addition, antidepressants frequently cause manic-like reactions, including loss of impulse control and violence.”
Similar evidence led the FDA to mandate severe “black box” warning on such drugs, and the influence of these drugs is increasingly being accepted by courts as evidence in trials for violent crime.
No Pattern Worldwide
No county has embraced psychiatric medications as much as the U.S., especially among children and teens, but if anti-depressant drugs are one of the causes of mass shootings, we should be able to observe similar phenomena in other countries that also have high levels of SSRI use. It is at this point that the issue becomes far murkier, as the pattern is less than clear outside U.S. borders.
Iceland is the greatest consumer of anti-depressants after the U.S. That’s not the only thing that Iceland has in common with America – far from guns being absent, they are widespread. It’s thought that Iceland has a similar gun ownership rate to the U.S., with about one-third of Icelandic homes containing a firearm. With these two things in common, one would expect that Iceland would suffer from mass shootings similar to those in the U.S., yet this is not the case. Iceland’s gun crime is virtually nonexistent, and violent crime, in general, is rare.
Iceland would appear to have an explosive combination of mind-altering drugs and readily available firearms, yet there has never been a mass shooting recorded on the island-nation. As well as stringent license requirements, one Icelandic gun-owner put the matter down to culture, speaking to the magazine The Reykjavík Grapevine. “I think the reason gun crime is so alien in Iceland is the ‘gun culture.’ In Iceland guns are for practical things like hunting and not for protection. We have the police for that.”
Helgi Gunnlaugson, a University of Iceland sociology professor, also suggested:
“In places like the US, a firearm is believed to be important for self-defense and to deter crime but this idea is foreign here…the gun is not to be aimed at other persons. It actually never really crosses our mind to do that. This cultural meaning and difference is not something you can change overnight with a stricter or more lenient gun control legislation—this difference runs much deeper than that.”
While the cultural explanation may have some truth, it doesn’t seem adequate to explain mass shootings involving a gunman launching an attack without reasonable justification, and that often culminate in the shooter’s suicide.
There are so many variables involved in worldwide violence and suicide that it would be the work of a lifetime to prove a cause-and-effect relationship between prescription drugs and mass shootings. It’s also unclear how psychiatric drug taking varies between Icelandic adults and youth, compared to American practices.
More Questions than Answers
While many claim to have the answer to America’s mass shooting problem, solutions like gun control address the symptoms and not the causes.
With childhood SSRI consumption increasing in several countries including Norway, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand, will these places begin to see an increase in youth violence and suicide? Without easy access to guns, how could these symptoms manifest in society? And perhaps the most critical question – why do so many people in today’s world feel the need to medicate themselves and their children with potentially dangerous mind-altering drugs?