Making the Connection Between Adolescent Males Treated With Psychotropic Medications and Mass Shooting Events in the United States
In an article investigating mass shootings in the United States, we would be remiss not to address the tragic events that took place over the last week at Monterey Park in Southern California and Half Moon Bay in Northern California. Our hearts go out to the families and friends of the eighteen killed and eleven injured.
By Janey Bibolet Ward
The United States has been plagued by mass shooting events (MSE) for over four decades. Studies from Statistica Research, going back to 1982, show these events are consistently on the rise in recent years. In 2022, there were 12 mass shooting events.
Historically it was older males who committed atrocities in the workplace in the 80s and 90s, commonly termed “going postal,” after events within the U.S. Postal Service that resulted in mass murders.
A recent shift has occurred where younger males are often the perpetrators—in public settings associated with their personal lives, such as schools and community spaces.
An analysis by the New York Times of the MJ Database points out that over half of the MSE since 2018 were committed by adolescent males under the age of 21, and includes research on psychiatric conditions and treatments.
The offenders are increasingly in the adolescent age cluster: According to The Violence Project, the number of mass shootings committed by adolescent males, ages 18-21, is increasing and often motivated by hate and attention-seeking behavior.
Key findings: The overwhelming majority of mass shooters were in crisis, and exhibiting several symptoms including extreme agitation, abusive behavior, isolation, losing reality, depressed mood, mood swings, inability to daily task, paranoia, suicidal ideation, and psychosis.
Over 33%, or ⅓ of the perpetrators exhibited over 5 of these symptoms simultaneously at the time of the MSE. The Agony of Adolescents, published by Psychology Today in 2016 presented a series of statistics indicating children today in this country are in crisis.
The Mass Killing Database compiles data including other weapons of violence, emphasizing why it is vital to investigate the many drivers that cause these devastating events to happen.
According to data compiled by James Alan Fox, Lipman Family Professor of Criminology, Law, and Public Policy at Northeastern University, regarding types of guns used in mass killings:
“Semiautomatic handguns are far more common in mass killings than guns that are typically classified as assault weapons. According to Fox, handguns are easily concealable and some can be equipped with large-capacity magazines.”
A study in 2006, Antidepressants and Violence: Problems at the Interface of Medicine and Law, opens with a report of an MSE in 1989 in which the adult perpetrator, Joseph Westbecker, was taking Prozac (fluoxetine), a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressant only a few weeks before committing a mass shooting in the workplace. This led to a lawsuit that exposed the known adverse events/side effects of psychotropic medications prescribed for depressive disorders.
It was later revealed that the manufacturer of the drug, Eli Lilly, secretly paid over $20 million to victims’ families in order to sway the trial and be free of liability, exonerated, and allowed to continue producing. Prozac is still being prescribed despite known evidence of harm.
The above study reports:
“The United States labels for all antidepressants as of August 2004 note that ‘anxiety, agitation, panic attacks, insomnia, irritability, hostility, aggressiveness, impulsivity, akathisia (psychomotor restlessness), hypomania, and mania have been reported in adult and pediatric patients being treated with antidepressants for major depressive disorder as well as for other indications, both psychiatric and nonpsychiatric.’”
The study goes on to review the data from clinical trials (on adults, not including adolescents) using the respective drug against a placebo for 4 of the major manufacturers of antidepressants at that time:
Prozac/fluoxetine (Eli Lilly), Paxil/paroxetine (GlaxoSmithKline), Zoloft/sertraline (Pfizer), and Effexor/venlafaxine (Wyeth). The same types of adverse reactions were associated with all of these medications.
Severe adverse events associated with psychotropic drugs include:
- Akathisia: increased tenseness, restlessness, insomnia, and a feeling of being very uncomfortable
- Emotional blunting: detachment, or an anti-motivational syndrome, described in one report as the equivalent to a “chemical lobotomy”
- Mania and psychosis: development of a psychotic episode or of command hallucinations
- Somnambulism: sleepwalking
In Antidepressants for children and teens from Mayo Clinic:
“Antidepressant drugs are often an effective way to treat depression and anxiety in children and teenagers. However, antidepressant use in children and teens must be monitored carefully, as rarely there can be severe side effects.
Antidepressants carry a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) black box warning about a risk of increased suicidal thinking and behavior in some individuals under the age of 25.”
Antidepressants and Suicide Risk: A Comprehensive Overview, published in Pharmaceuticals states:
“Only recently has the effect of antidepressant treatments on suicidal behavior and the increased overall mortality associated with major psychiatric disorders become a focus of research interest.
A highly controversial question is whether antidepressant treatment modifies the risk of various aspects of “suicidality” among patients with major depressive disorders, especially whether the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may cause worsening of suicidal thoughts in vulnerable people.”
Forest Labs, off-label drugs, and the FDA: In 2009, Forest Laboratories was cited in a Federal Civil Suit for illegally marketing two SSRI drugs, CeleXA/citalopram and Lexapro/escitalopram, over a period of seven years from 1998–2005.
An order was issued for off-label use in people under 25 without proper clinical trials or efficacy data, and known safety signals for risks of increased suicidal ideation.
Less than a month later, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved both of these drugs for use in young adults and adolescents based on data using adult clinical trials that concealed significant risks of harm while the lawsuit was still pending.
As far back as 1999, following the Columbine School mass shooting, American Psychiatric Association (APA) President, Dr. Rodrigo Munoz said:
“There is no specific link between these drugs and violent behavior. Despite a decade of research, there is little valid evidence to prove a causal relationship between the use of antidepressant medications and destructive behavior.
On the other hand, there is ample evidence that undiagnosed and untreated mental illness exacts a heavy toll on those who suffer from these disorders, as well as those around them.”
Antidepressant protocol: A September 2022 update by the National Library of Medicine provides a comprehensive guide to understanding FDA-approved and off-label use for currently prescribed antidepressant medications: indications, mechanisms of action, administration and adverse events. Information for every category and use is included for reference.
Refuting the Narrative
In July 2022, Psychology Today published an article, “Depression Is Not Caused by Chemical Imbalance in the Brain.” The author refuted that neuroscientists actually understand how the medications affect the developing brain, and categorically dismissed that modern medical science truly understands how psychotropics actually work.
It’s important to note that the concept of “chemical imbalance” in the brain arose in the late ‘80s alongside the introduction of Prozac.
The article disputes that disrupting serotonin or uptake inhibitors is how the drugs affect brain chemistry, which calls into question the mainstream use of antidepressants in the developing brain.
Perhaps the truth is that we just don’t know how antidepressants work, and it certainly is not the same for everyone. Additional long-term studies are needed for definitive conclusions.
WebMD provides a comprehensive look at different classes of antidepressant medications and their functions, and gives a similar conclusion confirming our lack of true understanding on the causes of depression in the brain.
The number of children and adolescents taking psychiatric drugs in the United States: Data from the IQVIA Total Patient Tracker (TPT) Database 2020, extracted in January 2021 by the Citizens Commission on Human Rights International, tracks physicians prescribing psychotropic medications:
According to this research, a staggering number of children in the U.S. from 0-17 years are medicated with psychotropic medications, totaling 6,155,852 as of the time of this report, out of 74.2 million, approximately 8% of the pediatric population.
Current screening tools for depression in the pediatric population: JAMA recently published Screening for Depression and Suicide Risk in Children and Adolescents Updated Evidence Report and Systematic Review for the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.
Adolescents Who Committed Mass Shootings Allegedly Prescribed Psychotropic Medications
- Dylan Klebold, 17 years old, Columbine School, Columbine, CO, April 1999: Said to be withdrawing from prescribed Zoloft and Paxil
- Eric Harris, 18 years old, Columbine School, Columbine, CO, April 1999: Prescribed antidepressant Luvox for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Robert Hawkins, 19 years old, Westroads Mall, Omaha, NE, Dec. 2007: Previously treated for depression and ADHD with unknown medication, said to be in withdrawal
- Adam Lanza, 20 years old, Sandy Hook Elementary, Newtown, CT, 2021: Under psychiatric care and potential withdrawal
- Ahmad Alissa, 21 years old, King Soopers Grocery Store, Boulder, CO, March 2021: Received treatment for psychological anger management and exhibiting paranoia
Refer to the Mother Jones database for additional incidents.
Bullying, peer rejection and social isolation: A profile is emerging in the literature to suggest that adolescent male perpetrators were often victimized incessantly in their daily lives in a setting with their peers.
This correlates with the increasing number of shooters under the age of 21 committing violent acts in places they lived, went to school, or visited. Predatory and premeditated violent behavior results when mental disturbances, social isolation and revenge aggression persists.
Family dysfunction and stress: A child living under familial stress can endure trauma that results in damage to the nervous system and increases the likelihood of depressive disorders.
Intervening in childhood is the most successful evidence-based practice to prevent the escalation of behavioral and psychological distress often before the need for psychotropic medication.
Social media: Another key finding from the Violence Project was that over 78% of adolescent perpetrators posted manifestos and their plans for mass shootings on social media—to gain attention and notoriety, flex their power, and threaten violence. They often included photos of themselves with weapons and ammunition.
Social media and the “dark web”—anonymous, untraceable websites—enables potential perpetrators to join communities online to find sympathizers. There they can share their proclamation and plans for committing mass violence, far in advance of committing such acts.
There is controversy in regards to mass surveillance from the National Security Administration (NSA) and social media companies. Yet if a person explicitly threatens to harm, law enforcement should be able to conduct a welfare check and obtain a warrant to conduct a search for weapons.
There needs to be a better mechanism in place that reports to local law enforcement, and new laws would need to be established to make this an effective solution. This is not a violation of privacy if a credible threat is made.
The government steps in to monitor pediatric mental health. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:
“As part of the Biden-Harris Administration’s Strategy to Address the National Mental Health Crisis, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), awarded $2 million in funding Thursday to the American Academy of Pediatrics to establish a National Center of Excellence on Social Media and Mental Wellness.
The purpose of the Center is to develop and disseminate information, guidance, and training on the impact—including risks and benefits—that social media use has on children and young people, especially the risks to their mental health. It will also examine clinical and social interventions that can be used to prevent and mitigate the risks.”
Charging adolescents as adults: Children who are prescribed psychotropic medications during their formative neurological years are at greater risk of exhibiting adverse behaviors.
If they commit a violent crime under duress while medicated, or while weaning from the medication, they are faced with trial as adults, and may be incarcerated for life or given the death penalty.
Violent video games: A call to action to create more experiential gaming from developers: A great majority of video games on the market are violent, with rewards given to the killing count. The first-person shooter perspective feels real, and the training on how to use the artillery is accurate.
Far fewer games are available without violence, and subsequently, do not provide the “serotonin reward.” Developers are not producing enough experiential games where you can gain achievements for scaling K2—the second-highest mountain on earth, or winning a regatta race.
Virtual reality could provide more meaningful learning experiences. Gaming companies have a responsibility to consider their connections to mass shooting events, as they influence youngsters, and are known to desensitize the players to real world violence.
When psychotropics are unnecessary: The evidence in the scientific literature definitively reports that pharmaceutical drugs used to treat learning disabilities such as ADHD and depression are harmfully impacting the developing teenage male brain, and in some tragic cases, leading to hostile aggression, mass violence, and suicides.
Physicians need to “do no harm,” by taking decisive action to stop over-medicating the pediatric population when evidence of harm is clearly stated.
Increased familial and economic pressures, along with persistent social isolation, peer rejection, and bullying, coupled with known psychotropic medications, is a contributing factor toward violent acts of retribution and revenge committed by desperate individuals on innocent civilians.
Community responsibility: Reporting of school shootings and mass violence have become common in the media news cycle, and much of society lives in fear of potential outbreaks.
Communities have an obligation to step up to support youth, and provide help before destruction sets in. It is our collective duty to care for one another and not turn a blind eye to the suffering in our midst.
Mental and Behavioral Health Support Modalities
There are proven modalities to treat mental and behavioral health issues that do not require risky psychotropic, mind-altering medications. Promising therapies using natural antidepressant flavonoids have been shown to reduce the damaging effects of oxidative stress on the brain.
There is evidence that micronutrients, vitamins, and antioxidants can be therapeutic for depressive disorders. Mindfulness meditation and acupuncture are complementary therapies that have shown to be effective as well.
Do not dismiss the importance of diet and physical activity when it comes to managing depression and mental health inconsistencies. There is never a one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition, so you must experiment to discover what’s best for you.
Based on their experience treating patients with depression, the doctors and practitioners at NeuroSpa Therapy Centers provide a simple list of foods to include and those to eliminate to combat depression. For your consideration:
Foods that fight depression:
- Whole foods
- Protein and meat
Foods that worsen depression:
- Sugars and refined carbohydrates
- Starches and processed grains
- Fried foods
Disclaimer and bodily autonomy: This article is not intended as medical advice. You should consult your doctor—preferably an “integrative” practitioner—to determine the best course of treatment for any medical or mental health condition. The decision to use pharmaceutical medication is individual; to be considered in collaboration with your family (if supportive) and healthcare provider.
Published on January 26, 2023
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