Guns don’t kill people, tablets do

Friday, March 1st, 2013

My last post considered the over-prescribing of psychoactive medications. Your responses suggested that I was not alone in my belief that highly-addictive painkillers and sedatives are prescribed far too easily, for a specific symptom instead of for the benefit of the person as a whole, and sometimes causing side-effects worse than the original complaint.

There is currently a debate raging in the US which queries the links between psychiatric medication and violence. Various articles link recent shootings to prescription medication, and a substantial piece of research (carried out by doctors who have all made money by testifying this in court, ahem) has been published which looks at acts or threats of violence carried reported as serious adverse drug events to the American Government. This research found that drugs most likely to lead to violent behaviour were varenicline (a stopping smoking aid), antidepressants, some ADHD drugs, and good old sedatives. (Interestingly, for geeks like myself, it seemed to be drugs that affected dopamine or serotonin levels.)

Now, as you know, I have some issues with taking a drug to ‘take things away’. They don’t go away, they just get hidden, and along with them often come an array of unexpected and potentially damaging side-effects. I got stuck on the Pill aged 12 by my GP to ‘regularise’ my periods, and it was only when I decided to stop taking it, aged 24, that I realised – hormones make me MENTAL. Information I would probably have benefitted from in my teens.

However, even by my standards, the articles from the US make some hefty claims. One article quotes a neurosurgeon and a security expert, both of whom, in the wake of recent shootings, point towards antidepressants as potential causes for this impulsive and violent behaviour.

Now I think that the suggestion of a causal link may be somewhat presumptuous. Even if there is a link between some medication and violence, how can the medication and not the original complaint be implicated? One of the diagnostic criteria for depression is ‘recurrent thoughts of death’ (although admittedly normally one’s own death). I’m not saying depressives are prone to killing sprees (or at least not ones that can’t be controlled by thumbs and forefingers) – I’m just saying that one’s thoughts do tend to go a bit squiffy when clinically depressed.

Another queriable factor is the number of Americans who take mental health medication. Anyone who saw Louis Theroux’s crazy documentary ‘America’s Medicated Kids’ will know that psychiatric meds are not just for adults over there, oh no, over there they’re smashing them down little kids too. One family he interviewed had their 10-year old son on separate medications for ADHD, bipolar (which, I’m pleased to say, is still not really used as a label for children in the UK… yet), and ‘impulsiveness’ – which isn’t even a psychiatric diagnosis. His mother was on antidepressants and his father was on medication for bipolar, which he “may or may not have”. From what I can gather, they’re all bang at the happy pills over there.

Now, if mental health medication caused violence, this is the equation I think we should be seeing in America: everyone on medication + shit loads of guns everywhere = a serious amount of death. When I see the news, I definitely see some death, but not shit loads. Maybe I’m just not looking hard enough. Not a massive death fan.

However, some of the articles I have read claim that the lack of focus in the news on the link between psychiatric meds and violent behaviour is because it detracts from the current anti-gun agenda. I have to say this seems a somewhat naive standpoint – no matter how mad they are, no-one has ever, as far as I’m aware, committed mass murder with a pack of Prozac.

It seems far more likely to me that the lack of coverage on this issue is as a result of back-handers to the media by the ever-present and largely omnipotent drug companies. As we all know, whether it’s doctors getting sent on golf weekends for over-prescribing sedatives, or news editors cutting stories that implicate antidepressant use in murder cases – drugs reps drive very nice cars.

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7 comments on “Guns don’t kill people, tablets do

  1. And sorry to all my email followers that you received that twice – technical difficulties.

  2. Tony the Pony says:

    Another fantastic article.

    Considering your last point, I’m not sure about back-handers – not because they’re unlikely, but because I don’t think they’re necessary! I imagine that the media have many good reasons to keep the link broken… it allows the stigmatising of cold-blooded killers and illegal drug addicts (everyone loves a car crash story) without any need for empathy, eases the politicisation of whatever random violence they choose to politicise, and doesn’t piss off their readers who take the more sociably acceptable prescribed medication. I mean, it’s hard to find a news story that discusses the violent mind without explicitly stating the distance between the violent person and society. Finally, I suppose there’s limited benefit to publishing such a story, since it would probably not make that much impact as an expose as it’s a non-specific and non-damning issue (unlike, say, the unfounded MMR vaccine scandal).

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, people don’t like to consciously know that violence is a part of the fabric of society, so in a culture where prescribed medications form part of the backdrop we don’t like to focus on the link between the two… or, at least, those of us lucky enough to not be drugs workers choose to look the other way!

    It will be interesting to hear how this debate in America goes, considering that – as you refreshingly stated so frankly – they have a shit load of guns too, which are another violent strand of accepted culture over there. Hopefully you can keep those of us outside the medical world posted! We will be reading!!

    • Whoa there, Tony – you are seriously cynical for a small horse!

      Excellent points, thank you. I think your perspective on maintaining distance between mainstream culture and those who consider themselves to be part of it, and violence, is incredibly astute. We only need to look at the sensitively dubbed ‘Blade Gunner’ to see how the press handle such matters – no acknowledgement of the fact that two women a week are killed in the UK by their partners, and half the tabloid readers probably belt their wives when they get home from the pub – domestic violence is disturbingly common, and if guns were legal in this country our figures would be significantly higher.

      No, you are right, it serves the media’s purpose to keep a ‘healthy’ distance between society and their assigned targets. If they are the baddies then we must be the goodies. Although this story has scared me a bit so I’d best take a Valium to level me out.

      I still don’t think that will stop the drug companies paying them off, though. Under-the-table blackmail with those in positions of power is their trade.

  3. jamie. says:

    Well a big fist for tony the pony!
    Whilst I don’t think there is any denying the most defining and decisive driver in the pharmaceutical industry is profit,I also believe that’s what governs the media and almost everything else. The possible question to answer is who (apart from the prescribed dependants) would suffer if such meds were removed from sale tomorrow. The phama industry affords a lot of people a very nice lifestyle irrespective of the debateable link to any social ills, I assume these are people who share cast and class with seniors in politics and hey ho the thing rolls on!
    I have to challenge your assertion though ‘drug worker’ (I imagine a distinction may appear). ‘Take things away’ -by using this phrase I assume you ark back to your drug worker days when you saw people struggling to function and using drugs in some way problematically or to their detriment- in this sense you possibly mean take ‘problems’ away….I am keen on this because over the last 50 years plus drug use has been demonised by the constant use of the most disfunctional members of society to allay a link to subs use per se and when it is on the whole believed the substance itself takes on an almost animated entity the evil weed… In real terms if subs use isn’t seen as so much of an outside function and accepted as something that has existed throughout human society since before fire and the wheel, it is surely ok to finish work have a glass of wine and take away the stiffness in the shoulders,to smoke a joint in a reasoned and safe fashion to take away some of the MS ‘shakes’ or even to smoke smack to take away the trivialities of existence to enable the producion of great literary art !!!! .
    I suppose all I’m saying is while ever we swing on the drug debate pendulum we are in danger of making fixed statements which will be fundamentally flawred..let’s not forget its people who make a drug bad or good ,its people who use drugs for the right or wrong reasons -drugs are static …people with drug problems are invariably people with problems who take drugs.

    • Thanks for this, Jamie. In response to the ‘take things away’ comment, I was referring to people taking prescription medications under the belief that they have been ‘cured’ – “these tablets are great! I feel fine now!” – until they stop taking the medication and realise that their symptoms have not gone away. Taking painkillers to mask the pain of a broken leg does not heal the bone.

  4. too much pharmacology, not enough psychology. Definitely agree, good post

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