Mass shooting in US revives debate on mental illness

House Speaker Paul Ryan accused of failing to address real factors behind violence after urging mental health reforms.

Robert Lewis Dear appears in court in Colorado Springs, Coloradp
Robert Dear is the gunman behind the recent Planned Parenthood attack [Reuters]

US House Speaker Paul Ryan has stressed the need to reform the country’s mental healthcare system in light of the shooting attack at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado that killed three people and injured nine others.

In a news briefing on Tuesday, Ryan implied that the main cause of a string of recent mass shootings in the country is “mental illness”.


“The common theme with these kinds of shootings is mental illness,” Ryan said. “This is not something we should be ignoring. We need to overhaul our mental health system.”

Critics, however, accuse government officials of failing to address the real factors behind the rise in violence.

Political motives

Alan Abramowitz, a prominent professor of political scientist at Emory University, told Al Jazeera that although Robert Dear, the captured perpetrator behind the Colorado assault, may suffer from mental health issues, Ryan’s comments appeared to have political motives driven by his Republican stance.

“He is deflecting attention from two important issues: One is the controversy over gun laws and the other is the possible influence of very extreme anti-abortion rhetoric that could have fuelled the attack on Planned Parenthood,” he said.

Related: Gunman at Planned Parenthood said: No more baby parts

“Some Republican presidential candidates have associated themselves with individuals who advocated violence and he is trying to remove any responsibility from people using language that could have spurred the shooting.”

In one of the most recent examples of such rhetoric, Joanna Windholz, a Republican Colorado state politician, on Tuesday blamed Planned Parenthood for the attack on its facility, saying the reproductive healthcare provider is the “real culprit” because of its abortion practices.

“Violence is never the answer, but we must start pointing out who is the real culprit. The true instigator of this violence and all violence at any Planned Parenthood facility is Planned Parenthood themselves,” Windholz said in a statement to the Colorado Independent newspaper.

Racial subtext

Abramowitz also suggested that Ryan’s statement indicated racial subtext since the majority of mass shootings in the US have been carried out by “white” Americans and yet those perpetrators have not been described as “terrorists”.

“The fact is the numbers of people who are affected by gun violence is so much greater than those who have been killed by acts of terrorism by Muslims,” he said.

“Since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the Twin Towers, most of the terrorism has been by extremist right-wing white males, not by Arabs, Muslims, or other minority groups.”

He also pointed out that Ryan failed to provide a plan on how to reform the mental healthcare system.

Psychiatric drug controversy

In a statement to Al Jazeera following Ryan’s remarks, Jan Eastgate, the president of Citizens Commission on Human Rights International, a US-based mental health watchdog, accused officials of failing to take into consideration that the use of prescribed psychiatric drugs, including antidepressants, could be a key factor in increasing acts of violence, despite reports of a growing correlation between the two.

“There have been 22 international drug regulatory agency warnings on psychiatric drugs citing effects of mania, hostility, violence and even homicidal ideation,” she said.

“At least 35 school shootings/school-related acts of violence have been committed by those taking or withdrawing from psychiatric drugs resulting in 169 wounded and 79 killed. Another 25 acts of other senseless violence have been committed by individuals taking or withdrawing from the medications resulting in 251 dead and 134 wounded.

“Rather than politicians calling on increased mental health services in the wake of these increasing random and violent acts, an in-depth review and investigation of the mind-altering drugs being prescribed must be initiated on a federal level.”

A report published by the National Institute of Health in 2010 – in which researchers used data from a 2004-2009 FDA review that found psychotropic medications were linked to violent behaviour – concluded that 1,527 cases of violence were largely connected to 31 drugs.

The drugs included “11 antidepressants, 6 sedative/hypnotics and 3 drugs for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder”.

Dr Joseph Glenmullen, a prominent psychiatric practitioner who co-authored the 2010 report and is the author of Prozac Backlash, argues antidepressants can cause both suicidal and homicidal behaviour.

“These really are terrible tragedies, but antidepressants can do this to people,” he has said.

NEWS: US police probe motive of California mass shooting

Detailed example

One key case of such an incident has been put forth by Dr Peter Breggin, a psychiatrist and author of Medication Madness: The Role of Psychiatric Drugs in Cases of Violence, Suicide and Crime.

He told Al Jazeera that after analysing the medical records of James Holmes – who killed 12 people and injured 70 others after opening fire on a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado in 2012 – it was likely that Holmes’ increasing intake of the antidepressant Zoloft had made him psychotic, causing or contributing to the attack.

“In March 21, Holmes went to a psychiatrist at his university and told her he had violent fantasies and she prescribed a daily dosage of 50 milligrams of Zoloft. He was maintained on increasing doses of Zoloft [up to 150mg] until June 30 when he dropped out of school and stopped taking the drug. During these 100 days on Zoloft, he developed his plans for the tragic attack on the Aurora theatre, which took place 20 days later on July 20.”

Breggin, who was a consultant to the defence regarding Holmes’ sentencing, concluded: “At the time of the shootings, I believe that Holmes was suffering from a Zoloft-induced toxic psychosis with manic features compounded with Zoloft withdrawal.”

However, there are also still a substantial number of psychiatrists that say the drugs are crucial for treating patients facing serious depression.

Dr Sudeepta Varma, a psychiatrist at NYU Langone Medical Center and fellow of the American Psychiatric Association’s Public Affairs Committee for New York County, told ABC news that she feared many patients were not receiving the correct dosage of meds.

“People often come in to me having been prescribed antidepressants from their doctor and they’re on the lowest dose, wondering why it isn’t working for them,” she said. “Primary doctors should really work in consultation with a psychiatrist.”

Source: Al Jazeera