Thursday, May 29, 2014

Mass Shootings, Mass Drugging and the Mass Media

Instances of mass shootings in schools, theaters, malls and on military posts have become so regular in this country that their horror no longer shocks us. It is a seemingly sad and awful truth that we can even get used to the most terrible events if they happen often enough. This should not be viewed as callousness or indifference, however. The fact is, accommodating to horror of this sort is a naturally occurring adaptive response that serves a self-protective function. In order to defend our psychological well-being from repeated assaults by powerfully negative events the mind finds ways to recast the experiences to make them less stressful.

Used to be that tabloids were the prime venue for sensational journalism. The distinction between tabloids and serious newspapers is now largely a thing of the past. Add to that the 24/7 news cycle, cable channels and the internet and you have a veritable circus of sensationalism which feeds on the human tragedy of escalating large-scale gun violence. Mix in some uninformed speculation about a "possible link to terrorism" and the "reporting" on these events can be very effective at manipulating the audience's attitudes and emotions. In this type of media coverage much is said but little is revealed.

Most, if not all, of the shooters in these cases have a history of mental illness. As a result, the coverage tends to focus on the failures of the psychiatric system, on people falling through the cracks and on the weak gun laws that permit psychologically unstable individuals to readily purchase weapons.

Of course, there are legitimate criticisms to be made of our mental health system but that is for another conversation. Moreover, there is overwhelming public support for rational and effective gun laws but the will of the people is being thwarted by the industry and their puppets in Congress. While these themes are being worked and re-worked in the media there is another significant factor that the shooters have in common that is missing from the journalistic reporting, and hence from the public conversation. At the time of the incidents all of the perpetrators had been taking or were being withdrawn from prescription psychotropic medications. Why is this important? Because it is no secret that certain classes of psychiatric drugs are known to cause suicidal and homicidal thoughts and impulses. For years the Federal Drug Administration has required these medications to carry a warning to that effect on the package insert.

Psychotropic drugs as a whole ought to be far more controversial than they are. They cure nothing. They are prescribed for "diseases"" that do not exist. And they have very serious side effects that range from shrinking brain matter, to diabetes and obesity, to suicide and mass murder. Why, then, does the public know so very little about these truths? I can only surmise that because Big Pharma makes so much money on psychotropics they have worked very hard to keep the bad news under wraps.

An example of the help they get might prove surprising, yet useful. The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) is an advocacy and lobbing organization formed in 1979. Purportedly, their mission is to promote the adoption of policies beneficial to those living with behavioral disorders and to encourage research into the causes and treatment of such disorders. In reality. NAMI promulgates as a matter of policy, a very narrow, biologically-based, understanding of what mental illness is. They refer to it as a "medical condition" or a "brain disease", despite the lack of valid data to support such a view. A more comprehensive analysis of the literature leads to the conclusion that conditions such as psychosis and major depression are likely to be the result of "biopsychosocial" factors. To that mix, I would add economics as well. Truth be told, we still know precious little of the origins of mental illness, yet NAMI pretends that we already know the cause and we are just waiting on the details.

Since they hold to a strict biological determinism, it should not surprise us that NAMI are staunch supporters of vigorous prescribing of psychotropic medications. Now this organization has mental health professionals on their Board of Directors, their Advisory Councils and on their staff. People who are capable of understanding the dangers of these drugs. So how are we to understand an organization claiming to be dedicated to improving the lot of the mentally ill, actively taking positions that directly harm their constituents and that block a broader research program that might accelerate our knowledge of causes? The answer lies in the fact that NAMI receives over 50% of its funding from drug companies. Large contributors also include health insurers and medical device manufacturers.

The media can play a valuable role in adding a new and important dimension to the debate over how to deal with the contagion of mass shootings. They need to bring attention to bear on the observed relationship between psychotropic drugs and violence. The public deserves to be fully informed about this potential contributor to the shootings.Gun control is sorely needed but if the real trigger of the violence is the overprescription of dangerous psychotropic medications, then control of a different sort may also be in order.

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