The Haunting Link Between SSRIs And Mass Shooters

Combine violent tendencies with brain-altering chemicals to make a man emotionally numb, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

By Andrea Mew5 min read
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In 1999, Eric Harris and his friend murdered 13 people in Columbine. In 2012, James Holmes murdered 12 moviegoers in Colorado. In 2015, Dylann Roof murdered nine people at a Charleston church. In 2016, Nikolas Cruz murdered 17 people in Parkland, Florida. In 2019, Connor Betts murdered 9 people in Dayton, Ohio.

What Are the Common Factors in Mass Shootings?

What do all of these mass shooters have in common? You’ll often hear about depression, isolation, fatherless homes, but did you know that there’s significant proof that each of them was on antidepressant medications known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, when they committed their heinous crimes?

Luxov was the antidepressant prescribed to infamous Columbine shooter Eric Harris, though information about his friend’s medical history is not reliably known. Then you have Nikolas Cruz, who had been receiving treatment from a behavioral health center and was reported to have been taking psychological medication regularly before committing the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Stephen Paddock, who opened fire on a crowd of country music fans at a Las Vegas festival in 2017, killing 58 people, was found to have been on Valium. The Dayton shooter Connor Betts was on SSRI antidepressants but he also had been “taking cocaine, Xanax, and alcohol, three other deadly drugs linked to extreme violence.”

No, correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation, but with antidepressant prescription and usage rising higher and higher every day, it’s not farfetched to find this common denominator in far too many cases of mass shootings and wonder if we should open a larger dialogue about the dangerous side effects of SSRIs. 

An award-winning journalist and former Congressional staffer Kelly Patricia O’Meara foretold this in 1999, writing about how drugs appear to be the common denominator in many mass shooting situations: “Although the list of school-age children who have gone on violent rampages is growing at a disturbing rate – few in the mental health community have been willing to talk about the possibility that the heavily prescribed drugs and violence may be linked.”

With antidepressant usage increasing every day, it’s not farfetched to find this common denominator in mass shootings.

While other data has suggested that only about a quarter of mass shooters have been on psychiatric medication like SSRIs, we can’t discount the current trend. It’s also worth noting that due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) guidelines, it’s somewhat hard to know just how many of our modern, infamous mass shooters were prescribed and actively taking antidepressants because their personal, private health information has been protected under patient privacy laws.

We can’t pin down one specific cause because every mass shooting is the culmination of many disturbing root causes, but it’s clear that our worsening mental health crisis isn’t being properly addressed.

What Role Could SSRIs Have Had?

Whatever the underlying causes may be, our society appears to be growing more mentally unwell by the day. In fact, the market for antidepressants is estimated to reach nearly $16 billion by 2023, and vested interests have consistently made big bucks (to the tune of $13.75 billion back in 2016) from pumping the nation with pharmaceutical drugs to solve our chemical imbalances.

Our nation’s dependence on antidepressants grew 64% from 1999 to 2014 alone, and since then, over 13.2% of American adults have reported antidepressant use. Yet, Big Pharma’s cure-all to combatting low, depressive moods, actually hasn’t shown much in the way of long-term results for improving the SSRI-user’s quality of life. 

When you take into consideration the overall return on investment, any inquisitive mind would start to question why antidepressant prescriptions have become so widespread and normalized. It really makes you wonder if SSRIs are as innocent as they’re purported to be. Well, research backs up these concerns, with clinicians allegedly overprescribing SSRIs when they should instead be trying out non-therapeutic interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy or psychotherapy or exercise or improving gut health.

I don’t bring this up to discount the many positive outcomes that certain SSRI-users have experienced as a result of their medication. For the right person, antidepressants may help them rise to their challenges and overcome crippling mental illness. But for the wrong person, evidence keeps popping up that suggests antidepressants may spiral them further into mental illness.

Lexapro, Prozac, Zoloft, Celeva, Paxil, and other types of SSRI drugs alter the user’s brain chemistry by selectively “blocking the breakdown and reabsorption of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the spaces between neurons” and then causing “serotonin levels to rise, promoting neuronal firing in circuits of the brain associated with mood and anxiety.” 

These drugs have the potential to be positively life-changing if someone suffers from panic attacks or other anxiety-related disorders and is in need of relief from feeling so stressed about the world. At the same time, users have also reported feelings of hopelessness, suicidal ideations, and even violent behaviors. This happens because SSRIs can often make the users feel emotionally numb and like they can do things they wouldn’t normally contemplate doing.

Ironically, users have reported feelings of hopelessness, suicidal ideations, and even violent behaviors. 

Look no further than the BBC documentary Panorama: A Prescription for Murder?, which exposed SSRI-users’ incidences of aggressive behaviors (the producers received 1,374 viewer emails corroborating their negative emotional reactions to their antidepressants), or you can scroll through endless comments of anecdotal evidence on online forums where people with a history of antidepressant usage share their stories.

“This is anecdotal, but I was on an SSRI (fluoxetine) for several years and basically went into a violent and terrifying psychosis if I drank alcohol while on it,” shared one Reddit user. “I have absolutely no memory of these incidences as I would black out, but from what I've been told and observed in a video taken of me, I became uncontrollably violent and appeared to be ‘possessed’.”

“A few years ago, I was on Zoloft for depression. I started to become aggravated with everything. Having homicidal thoughts. Challenging men that could easily take me down. This intensified over several weeks,” shared another Reddit user. “One day I went out and decided I was going to drive my truck into a police car. But never found the right opportunity. I ended up in a mental ward for 8 days while they weaned me off of it. I'm ok now. But that person was not me, I do not know who that was, that took over my body.”

Now, these online users didn’t become mass shooters, but personal testament online about medication that is otherwise glorified or normalized by the pharmaceutical industry is important for remaining objective about the positive and negative effects that a medication has.

“Wait, Andrea,” you might be saying, “I thought more women took antidepressants than men do.” Ding, ding, ding! You’re correct. Some critics of the haunting link between mass shooters and SSRI usage will raise the fact that, statistically, women take antidepressants at a higher rate than men, and we’re certainly not seeing an influx of female mass shooters. Since 1982, there have been 127 mass shootings carried out by men and three by women.

To start with, a woman is way less likely to commit a violent crime than a man, and women constitute far fewer cases of crime across all categories than men. With much less testosterone, women are just not inclined toward aggressive, violent, or risk-taking behavior to the degree men are. So even if taking antidepressants, which are known to mute invasive emotions and create a mind-numbing effect when weighing the potential consequences of your actions, women just aren’t going to behave as violently as men. 

Ultimately, it makes you wonder if this link between SSRI-usage and mass shooters is a cause, a coincidence, or just a common factor present because of the depression in many of the shooters.

Are SSRIs the Cure-All They’re Treated As?

The Food and Drug Administration’s database identifies 11 antidepressants as increasing the risk of violent behavior, with further research concluding that the potential for violence while on these medications is a “genuine and serious adverse drug event.” The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare even had to revise their drug warning labels after further investigation into SSRIs to say: “There are cases where we cannot rule out a causal relationship [of hostility, anxiety, and sudden acts of violence] with the medication.”

There should be more oversight for who is prescribed these medications and online communities really need to stop glorifying being on them. Prior to the 1990s, antidepressants were usually only prescribed to patients who showed severe symptoms of depression. Among side effects like impaired sexual function, these users would essentially become hooked on their antidepressants and experience severe withdrawals that brought cardiac issues, insomnia, mood swings, confusion, irritability, agitation, and feelings of unreality.

The FDA’s database identifies 11 antidepressants as increasing the risk of violent behavior.

Big pharmaceutical companies need to be held to a higher level of accountability to disclose what they may know about the medications they’re getting the general public hooked on. At the same time, health professionals can’t just dole out mind-altering drugs to anyone seeking them. Far too often, it feels like the medical industry is beholden to profits over people. 

I know I speak for a lot of us when I say that I know far too many people who sought out antidepressants as a quick fix when – and if their healthcare providers were honest with them – they should have been seeking out alternative methods that solve the root problem of their depression and anxiety. 

There are many treatments that can be offered instead of SSRIs, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), addressing gut health, and placing an importance on regular physical exercise and healthy vitamin D levels. Responsible SSRI prescription should be step one in a treatment plan to alleviate depression so that the person has the energy to address their root issues and then slowly wean themselves off the drug.

What's more, new research from University College London was just released which found that depression might not be caused by chemical balances at all and that SSRIs may not be the right treatment for depression. The researchers suggested that scientists don’t actually know how antidepressants work in relation to adjusting the levels of serotonin chemicals in the brain, but if depression is not a biochemical cause, then SSRIs must be treating symptoms through different routes. Furthermore, they stated that “depression should not be tackled as if it is a single disorder,” so using one style of treatment – SSRI prescription – would not suit every patient and may even be detrimental.

Closing Thoughts

Many of the modern mass shooters had psychological issues, diagnosed or not, and some of them were even known by the FBI prior to them committing their attacks. No, antidepressants can’t be considered the root cause for mass shootings, but it’s certainly alarming to see factors like these arise consistently.

Scarlett Lewis, one of the mothers whose child was murdered in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary Shooting, even spoke out recently about how gun safety laws aren’t the cure for gun violence, noting that she didn’t think that bandaid solutions worked 10 years ago when her son and his classmates were murdered and they aren’t going to work now.

“Everyone either knows someone who’s had their life taken, has a substance abuse problem, has a mental illness. Stop thinking that someone else is going to come in and fix things for us,” she said. “It is a problem of devolving in society, of disconnection, of not caring for one another, of not being compassionate.”

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