Prescription Drugs and School Violence

Many have speculated that either the side effects from taking certain prescription drugs or the withdrawal from taking them has been a factor in school and campus shootings. In particular, a certain class of antidepressant drugs, known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), has been linked to a number of the most serious incidents of violent crime on school and university campuses. This category of drugs includes Prozac, Zoloft, Paxil, Celexa, Lexapro, and Luvox. Newer SSRIs include Remeron and Anafranil. Another similar category consists of the serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), which include Effexor, Serzone, Cymbalta, and Pristiq. Dopamine reuptake inhibitors include wellbutrin, which is marketed as Zyban.

Many of these drugs were not tested on young people, yet have been increasingly prescribed to them. Once the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves a drug for use, it can be prescribed to any population, regardless of whether the drug has been formally tested in that group.

SSRIs and other antidepressants are known to cause the following side effects:

  • Manic reaction (mania–e.g., kleptomania, pyromania, dipsomania)
  • Abnormal thinking
  • Hallucinations
  • Personality disorder
  • Amnesia
  • Agitation
  • Psychosis
  • Abnormal dreams emotional lability (or instability)
  • Alcohol abuse and/or craving
  • Hostility
  • Paranoid reactions
  • Confusion
  • Delusions
  • Sleep disorders
  • Akathisia (severe inner restlessness)
  • Discontinuation (withdrawal) syndrome

Following is a partial list of some of the incidents in which a prescription drug has been implicated:

  • In 1988, Laurie Dann had been taking Anafranil and lithium when she killed one child and wounded six at an Illinois elementary school.
  • Also in 1988, James Wilson, who had been taking Xanax, Valium, and several other drugs, shot and killed two eight-year-old girls and wounded seven others at an elementary school in Greenwood, South Carolina.
  • In 1989, Patrick Purdy shot and killed five and wounded 30 other elementary school students in Stockton, California. Purdy had been taking thorazine and amitriptyline.
  • Toby R. Sincino shot two Blackville-Hilda High School teachers on October 12, 1995, killing one. Sincino, who killed himself moments later, had been taking the antidepres-sant Zoloft.
  • On May 21, 1998, Kip Kinkel killed four and wounded 23 at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon. Kinkel had been taking Prozac.
  • On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 and wounded 23 others before killing themselves at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Harris had been taking Luvox.
  • On May 20, 1999, T. J. Solomon, who was taking Ritalin, wounded six people at Heritage High School in Conyers, Georgia.
  • On March 25, 2005, Jeff Weise killed nine and injured five at Red Lake High School in Red Lake, Minnesota. Weise had been taking Prozac.
  • On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho murdered 32 people at Virginia Tech University, in the deadliest campus shooting ever. Cho had been taking prescription medications.
  • In 2006, Duane Morrison shot and killed a girl at Platte Canyon High School in Colorado. Antidepressants later were found in his vehicle.
  • On February 14, 2008, shooter Steve Kazmierczak shot 21 people at Northern Illinois University, killing five. He had recently stopped taking Prozac.
  • On September 23, 2008, Finnish school shooter Matti Saari killed 10 people and then himself. Saari was taking an SSRI medicinal product as well as a benzodiazepine.
  • In November 2009, Christopher Craft, Sr., a graduate of Stissing Mountain Junior-Senior High School, walked into the school around 7:45 a.m., with a concealed disassembled shotgun. After reassembling the weapon in a bathroom, he entered the middle school office and took Principal Robert Hess as a hostage. Craft had been taking Cymbalta for depression.

The federal government has begun to react to what seems by now to be a trend. On September 14, 2008, the FDA mandated that pharmacies provide parents or guardians of patients younger than the age of 18 for whom antidepressants have been prescribed with an Antidepressant Patient Medication Guide. On September 14, 2008, the FDA ordered that a “black box” warning label be placed on antidepressants, describing the risk of suicide for persons younger than age 18 who take these drugs.

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References:

  1. Cullen, D. (2010). Columbine. New York: Twelve.
  2. Davey, M., & Harris, G. (2005, March 26). Family wonders if Prozac prompted school shootings. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/26/national/26shoot.html
  3. Huffington, A. (2007, April 19). Virginia Tech aftermath: Did legal drugs play a role in the massacre? Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arianna-huffington/virginia-tech-aftermath-d_b_46280.html
  4. SSRI stories. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.ssristories.com/index.php
  5. Vossekuil, B., Fein, R., Reddy, M., Borum, R., & Modzeleski, W. (2002). The final report and findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the prevention of school attacks in the United States. Jessup, MD: Education Publications Center, U.S. Department of Education.