A Misguided Meme

A Misguided Meme August 22, 2019

In the internet melee following the recent shootings in California, Texas, and Ohio, the predictable arguments about guns, video games, and the NRA were interrupted by the emergence of a new catch-all explanation. This meme, shared mostly on right-wing social media pages, goes like this: mass-shooters all have one thing in common, and it’s not the gun used. They have all been on psychiatric drugs, most often antidepressants, meaning these medications must be causing mass-shootings.

To borrow an overused neologism, this is as fake as news gets. Worse, it unnecessarily stigmatizes the one thing that allows many people to live predictable and productive lives.

The article most often linked by those spreading this ill-informed meme is a six-year-old, typo-and-conspiracy-laden tirade from “AmmoLand-dot-com.” Here’s the money line:

The overwhelming evidence points to the signal [sic] largest common factor in all of these incidents is the fact that all of the perpetrators were either actively taking powerful psychotropic drugs or had been at some point in the immediate past before they committed their crimes.

The author’s evidence for this claim? “Multiple credible scientific studies” (none of which are linked), and an assurance that “one need only Google relevant keywords and phrases to see for themselves.” Also, a collection of anecdotes on a forum devoted to demonizing psychiatry.

“Overwhelming,” indeed.

Disappointingly, it looks like the NRA’s Dana Loesch is responsible for digging this meme up and re-popularizing it. My fellow gun owners and defenders of the Second Amendment are devouring it, perhaps seeing this as a means of taking the heat off those packing heat. But as someone who also has loved ones and friends who depend on medication to treat mental illness, I can’t sit around and watch this nonsense perpetuated.

Here’s why it’s deeply, recklessly wrong to blame mass-shootings on psychiatric medications.

First, there are around 35 million people in the United States on antidepressants alone. Yes, I think we over-prescribe in this country. Yes, materialistic assumptions in medicine sometimes lead us to ignore emotional, spiritual, and relational problems. That’s another conversation for another time. Let’s assume that four of these 35 million people lose it and go on shooting sprees as a direct result of their medication (and not their condition). We’re talking about a side-effect rate drastically better than alcohol and stress. That’s less than a one-in-8.7-million chance of becoming a shooter. To condemn life-saving medications on the basis of such minuscule numbers is significantly less rational than shutting down bars on the grounds that 40 percent of violent crime convictions involve booze.

Second, and much more importantly, the headline and the article are both wrong—easily, provably wrong. “Every mass shooting” does not share “one thing in common.” There’s no mention anywhere of John Earnest (the Poway synagogue shooter) being on antidepressants or psychiatric drugs. Nor is there mention of Omar Mateen (the Pulse Night Club shooter) taking such medications. In fact, Reuters reports that Mateen attempted a self-diagnosis, researching antipsychotic medications shortly before the shooting. If he had a mental illness, he was untreated.

There’s also no evidence that psychiatric medications cause people to perpetrate mass-shootings. There’s strong evidence that these medications reduce violent behavior. Anyone who thinks a mere correlation between the two implies causation needs to take a statistics class. Even if a majority of recent mass-shooters have been on antidepressants or antipsychotics, it proves about as much as the fact that a majority of them have been young men, or right-handed, or white, or wearing pants. With 35 million Americans being treated with antidepressants (and more on other classes of medication), the chances of any randomly-selected male being on psychiatric drugs is far, far greater than the chances that those drugs caused him to shoot people.

Third, correlation-causation fallacies usually work by identifying two effects of the same cause, then trying to ferret out how one caused the other. It’s ignoring the bird and trying to figure out how nests create eggs. Given the rate at which antidepressants are administered in America, it is overwhelmingly more likely that troubled young men who end up committing mass-shootings have displayed behavior which doctors identified as psychiatric illness and prescribed medications to stabilize. In other words, the mental illness and moral conditions which led a shooter to kill people were likely already present or developing, and may even have been mitigated by the medication.

To put it another way, young men who have displayed troubling signs are a powerful self-selector for psychiatric treatment and medication. Any responsible psychiatrist who met some of these guys before their crimes would know that something was amiss. Blaming the medications for their acts of mass-violence is like blaming hospitals for the disproportionate number of people who die there.

The fact that so many on the right are eager to seize on the “psychiatric-meds-cause-mass-shootings” meme is a sad commentary on the human desire to deflect moral pressure. For those who haven’t dealt with mental illness, the purported correlation can look convincing—especially as the left renews its demands for gun control, and blames all gun owners for these shootings. “It’s the drugs, stupid!” can be a gratifyingly unexpected retort for a beleaguered Second Amendment defender.

But the idea that psychiatric medication inspires otherwise placid individuals to commit mass-murder is, to use a highly technical and scientific term, idiotic. It displays a deep and troubling urge for easy answers by those I count as members of my political tribe. Answers without knowledge, though, are metaphorical friendly fire. They wound friends, coworkers, neighbors and family members already struggling with one of the heaviest burdens a person can shoulder. To tell them, without evidence—indeed, contrary to the evidence—that one of their most important tools for treatment could turn them into monsters is cruel. Ironically, this misguided meme that could claim more lives than mass-shooters.

This article was originally published at BreakPoint.org. 

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