Do antidepressants cause gun massacres? Peter Hitchens wants to know…

In a blog post published after the massacre of black worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina, by Dylann Roof, a young white racist, Peter Hitchens suggests that there is a link between drug use and rampage killings.

He would like to see an inquiry into the possible connection, with special focus on his bête noire, ‘antidepressants’ (which he mysteriously puts in inverted commas). Indeed, he needs an inquiry because the evidence is thin on the ground. As he admits himself, some notorious mass murders have been carried out by people who weren’t on antidepressants so far as we know:

The 2010 Cumbria shootings by the taxi-driver, Derrick Bird, remain equally inexplicable if the shooter is assumed to be rational. Only if he was unhinged can the actions be explained consistently. But individual madness is rare in humans who have not undergone severe personal shock and tragedy, or some sort of external physical trauma, physical or chemical. But there was only one hint that he may have sought help for his mental health, oddly in a report in an Australian newspaper, otherwise nothing. At the time I suspected he might have been taking prescription ‘antidepressants’, and asked if this was so. I was told that it wasn’t so, though I am not sure how this was established beyond question.

I asked Hitchens on Twitter if he believes there is anything more than correlation between mass murder and the use of antidepressants. I didn’t get a straightforward answer. I suggested he was a ‘contrarian’. That produced a reply:

Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 10.57.34


Then he blocked me.

Anyway, this is how Hitchens puts it in his blog post:

My main opinion is that correlations between drugtaking (legal and illegal) and irrational violence increasingly demand a proper inquiry into whether there is another more powerful and significant common factor in these massacres.

If you don’t know anything about Peter Hitchens, he’s the man who thinks addiction doesn’t exist. In his book The War We Never Fought he claims that law enforcement and government officials have been deceiving us for decades. They want us to believe they are waging a war against drugs, while they cynically abandon the last weapons in our arsenal against them.

He thinks so few people agree with him on this subject ‘because this generation is corrupted by drugs’. Drugs are also the reason most graduates haven’t read Dickens. Most things are the fault of drugs, it would seem. And of not listening to Peter Hitchens.

This is a laboured point, but it bears repetition. Correlation does not equal causation. Hitchens is too intelligent to make such an elementary mistake. He never actually says that drugs are the cause of rampage killings. He merely calls for an inquiry.

Are drugs anything more than a common factor in mass killings? Think about it for a moment. Is it not more likely that people who commit mass murder are depressed, and therefore take treatment for depression? What else could an expensive and pointless inquiry discover?

Hitchens goes on to make another association that reminds me of the – extremely speculative – theory that removing lead from petrol and paint has dramatically reduced crime:

There had been other such incidents before then, but the random shootings of schoolfellows only really begin about 35 years ago. Did guns become easier to obtain in 1979? No, but by then the now-universal policy of ‘treating’ mental illness with powerful mind-altering drugs, instead of admitting the mentally ill to hospitals, was well-established.

You might call this the ‘just saying…’ school of epistemology. You might also note that lots of mental problems are addressed by cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which doesn’t involve drugs, and that plenty of mentally ill people are put in hospital.

Clearly Hitchens believes that drugs are the cause of much that is wrong with the world. But in the case of rampage killings he merely dangles the idea in front of us.

I hope he won’t mind if I indulge in some speculation of my own. I’m not accusing Hitchens of intellectual dishonesty – I’m sure he believes his suspicions are well founded – but this theory seems designed to attract attention, by a man who apparently can’t get enough of it. As he explained in an interview with the Guardian:

‘Well, it’s what I’ve always dreamed of – of being the kind of person who gets written about. I dreamed of being part of the exciting people who were in the arguments.’

  • Otto von Bismarck

    Yeah…this seems pretty obvious. Hitchens has observed over a number of years that a lot of mass killings have been committed by people on drugs and/or anti-depressants. You’re absolutely right to say that correlation does not necessarily mean causation, but when such findings are produced it does warrant an in depth study to investigate why such strong correlation exists.

    It may well be that people on anti-depressants are already in a state of mind which is conducive to committing mass killings, or there may just as easily be something to his claims. What we do know is that certain illegal substances, in particular marijuana, have been found by some studies to greatly increase the likelihood of psychotic episodes in people who use them. A pour over the background of the perpetrators of historical killing sprees over the last 20 years reveals that a frighteningly large number were users of cannabis, or said to be users of cannabis. I’d say there’s adequate grounds for further investigation.

    You can’t really win here, as Hitchens is merely advocating for an inquiry to investigate the (fairly innocuous) claims further, while your position seems to be a flimsy rebuff motivated not so much from any reasoned and researched contrary viewpoint but rather because of a dislike of Hitchens’ politics. Common sense and natural scientific curiosity would place the vast majority on the side of Hitchens.

    As for your last few paragraphs, you’ve gone a tad too ad hominem for my liking (though the first few introductory sentences seemed to suggest if taken in a certain light that Peter is denying the attack was motivated by racism). He’s someone who likes to argue and debate the issues…the fact he’s actually gone to the effort to counter this piece on his own blog demonstrates that.

  • DrMcCleod

    Before you get into a discussion about the objective reality of ‘addiction’, I strongly recommend you read this article:

    If your argument doesn’t address the points raised within, then you are wasting everyone’s time.

  • Allen Starr

    “Is it not more likely that people who commit mass murder are depressed, and therefore take treatment for depression”

    You clearly have never read, or seen on US TV, all of the side effects of anti-depressants.

  • shibby dibby

    antidepressants are a con with horrible side effects. I’ve used them myself after a 15 minute appointment at the doctor during a few months where I wasn’t particularly happy. The moment I stopped talking them I felt like I was losing my mind and I felt suicidal. This lasted for a couple of weeks. They’re fucking poision.

  • Peter Hitchens
    • Philip Dawson

      There has also been suggestions that antidepressants increase the risk of suicide! In this case there is a possible mechanism-severely depressed people are unmotivated to do anything, and if they get a bit better on an antidepressant might get up the wherewithal to actually do something ( act on their pre-existing suicidal urges). But that doesn’t mean antidepressants “cause” people to suicide: no one, as far as I know, has studied their use in non depressed people to see if they get the urge to suicide. And just because you have an urge to do something ( e.g. swear at the TV, or the computer when it doesn’t work, or shoot your neighbours dog that barks in the night,) doesn’t mean you actually go and do it. It might be possible to blame a drug for creating tendencies, thoughts even (or bad dreams!), but you cant actually blame the drug for behaviour. Behaviour requires a conscious decision to do something. Most mass killings, like most successful suicides, have been carefully planned. Premeditated murder ( aka with “malice aforethought” as the old convictions used to say), requires careful planning to do. Not generally the actions of a drug crazed person, though sometimes so. So it gets back to the old debate was he mad or bad? Six psychiatrists examined Martin Bryant after the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania, and to the disappointment of the authorities declared him sane, he knew exactly what he was doing. He had even been spotted in Strahan, a tourist hot spot on the other side of the island, presumably checking out where there were the most people in the one place he could kill in a short period of time.

      • DrMcCleod

        ” It might be possible to blame a drug for creating tendencies, thoughts even (or bad dreams!), but you cant actually blame the drug for behaviour. Behaviour requires a conscious decision to do something.”

        This rather misses the point, drugs can (and do) drive people mad, in which case their motivations are not rational and their decisions are based on false premises. No sane man would hack an elderly woman’s head off in a London street – after all.

  • Ade

    Ah, the “correlation is not causation” defence, beloved of the pro-drugs lobby…

    It would serve us well to remember, this was the tactic employed by the tobacco lobby, to prevent research into lung cancer.

    It would also serve us to observe: correlation is necessary, as first step in obtaining evidence for any inquiry.

    And we have the argument from ignorance, too: “What else could an expensive and pointless inquiry discover?” Well, how about the very thing it’s looking for: evidence of a causal link between antidepressants and rampage killings? Not so pointless, now.

    I was hoping for “anecdotal evidence is not scientific proof”, but perhaps you’re saving that for later…

  • AxelHeyst

    Say you could pop a pill that stopped you feeling guilt, sadness, shame, or revulsion.

    Logically, such a drug would make it much less upsetting for you to kill other people.

    So the question is, are there any drugs that inhibit those emotions?

  • aliandhisguitar

    People use drugs and alcohol, precisely because they are mind-altering substances. Of course, the link with aggression and violence should be taken seriously and proper studies conducted.

  • I would not worry about Peter Hitchens arguments on anything, unduly.
    I would accuse Peter Hitchens of “intellectual dishonesty” …His own brother Christopher often did!
    Ahh, Christopher, where are you now …when the world really needs you …R.I.P Old Man (wherever you may be)

  • Steven Sykes

    Rx for violence? Crime risk rises for young people on antidepressants, study says