by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
February 18, 2008
WARNING: THIS MEDICATION MAY MURDER YOUR FRIENDS
BRADENTON, Fla. -- You've heard the warnings, haven't you? Stop Prozac and you may take a shotgun, an Uzi or an AK-47 and mow down your family and friends, or even a whole classroom full of your fellow students. You didn't?
Well, that warning is not on the bottle, but like countless mass-murder incidents before it, Friday's shootings at Northern Illinois University, as well as the Virginia Tech shootings that killed 32 last year, was probably precipitated by the effect of stopping medications that suppress anger and other powerful emotions but do not relieve the underlying cause. Isn't it time we started warning people - or stopped prescribing these medicines?
The U.S. Food & Drug Administration, the psychiatric community and pharmaceutical industry have been failing abjectly in their duty to warn users of medications like Prozac that violent, deadly episodes may take place when their use is halted. And soon, I believe, someone is going to ask this question: Is it worth a single human life, not to mention hundreds each year, to quell human emotions with drugs instead of curing the emotional disorder that may underlie them?
Some 15 years ago, I investigated half a dozen incidents of mass murder, including one on the campus at Cal State Fullerton and the more famous Charles Whitman shootings at the University of Texas and found that five of the six incidents had a single thread in common: Shortly before they occurred, the killer had stopped taking medication prescribed for them by a physician, usually a psychiatrist or psychologist.
As I came upon the notations in case files, police reports and newspaper clippings, my confusion grew. Why, I asked myself, did this glaring link between mass murderers not come to the attention of a House or Senate panel, of major newspapers and the broadcast media? Sure, the fact that someone stopped taking medications is frequently mentioned in news accounts, but one instance is rarely tied to another. And why does the press fail, over so many years and so many incidents, to make the connection?
The answer, it appears, may lie with the Church of Scientology, the cult of L. Ron Hubbard followers whose adherents include high-profile celebrities like Will Smith, Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Herbie Hancock. Their parallel investigative arm, the Hollywood-based Citizens Commission on Human Rights, has long sought to exploit the connection between halted medications and mass murder as part of its decades-long war against psychiatry. During that war, it has also taken on new enemies it believes are allies of psychiatry, namely, the major media. And in rejecting Scientology's claims about medication, I believe, the media has shot itself in the foot.
The connection is as easy to identify as it is to plug the phrase "murder and stopped taking medication" into Google; that yields 94,000 results and hundreds of different cases around the country of similar events. Where is our responsibility as journalists, and where is my government's responsibility as a regulator of pharmaceuticals, in all of this?
Here's a typical example, from a 1994 article in the daily Virginian-Pilot about a man named Lloyd S. Waters, a Suffolk, Va., man who killed a 78-year-old acquaintance. Note that the drug is not named (they rarely are) as you study the details:
Waters, 49, who claims to be a preacher, told psychiatrists he thought Ruffin needed to die because he was spreading false prophecies. He went to Ruffin's home in the Saratoga section of Suffolk and shot him three times, later saying he did it "to make all the questions stop," according to court records.
If you feel like driving a neo-conservative nuts today, ask him why the shooter in this case was any less innocent than the victim. He was certifiably insane, and the medications helped him avoid acting upon his murderous impulses. When an insane man stops taking medication, and then kills someone, is he culpable?
After all, Waters did not know that many others had killed people after they stopped taking medications. He didn't know the medications were merely suppressing his impulses, not erasing them. He didn't know when he started taking the prescribed medications that stopping them would lead to a violent explosion. He didn't return to sanity when he stopped taking medications, did he?
And yes, he might have known better when he was still on them if he was warned that violence might occur. He was apparently unfamiliar with his own emotional instrument, which had long been unavailable to him because it was suppressed - unfamiliar enough that he was clueless that murder was on his mind.
A 2006 study of 52 homicides in Britain described in the Times of London found a clear causal link between many of the murders and halted medication. According to the British government's national director for mental health and author of the study, Prof. Louis Appleby, said "We have to acknowledge how many [killings] might have been prevented had we acted earlier. Quite a lot of these cases have preventable elements. For example, 25% of patients committing homicide had stopped taking their medication.
"We looked at how many might be prevented by the community treatment orders - how many patients were detained, subsequently stopped their medication and then went out to kill someone. The answer is 16% - one in six of the 52 homicides," Appleby said. Mentally ill people kill 400 a year in Great Brotain, the study showed. The community treatment orders allow authorities to force some patients to continue taking their medication.
Treating symptoms without treating the underling cause is dangerous in itself. It's like a cut on your arm that has become gangrenous. It won't help to use a bigger and bigger Band-Aids as the infection spreads.
Schizophrenia is a complex disease, and it may have genetic origins. Many of the medications that treated it in the past had cancer-causing ingredients such as heavy salts that caused other illnesses like tardive dyskinesia, the constantly repeated gestures and movements once so common in mental hospitals. The newer generation of medications like Prozac was seen as a godsend by many in the mental health community because it eliminated these symptoms. But like its predecessors, relief from symptoms did not change the problem.
There is one extremely effective peer=reviewed psychiatric treatment for emotional buildups that can erupt into violence. It was created specifically for stressed-out college students during the era in which college kids gave their hearts and souls to the effort to halt the war in Vietnam. Dr. Eugene Gendlin of the University of Chicago called his therapy "focusing," and it allows patients to treat themselves or to work another lay person through the anger, frustration, grief and guilt that accompanied stress.
In the practice of focusing (which was the subject of more than 50 scientific papers), the therapist first introduces the technique, which merely involves focusing on one's "center of feeling" and then waiting for the very first word, thought, image or phrase to arise spontaneously from that center. Then the patient discusses the reaction, trying to weigh his words against the emotion at the center of his feelings. Either the first time or around, or on subsequent tries (people whose minds are too busy to notice their emotions often need to try several times), there comes a personal revelation and a "felt shift," as Gendling called it, in the underlying emotion.
Focusing is an extraordinary tool that doesn't require medication or long therapeutic encounters, and in my own case it has worked very quickly on many occasions, all but the first one or two when I was using it by myself. I learned of it while writing an article for the LA Weekly about a holistic healing center in Los Angeles.
The so-called HIPA regulations concerning patient privacy, which prevented the police chief in the NIU case from naming the medication, need to changed to allow police departments to identify the medications used by such killers, both for public dissemination and for use in epidemiological studies of these violent episodes. In addition, the FDA must establish a system that will require that users of such drugs to get strong and persistent warnings from providers, including their doctors and pharmacists, and to alert their physicians when medications are not re-ordered, are halted or are ineffective in controlling violent impulses.
It isn't necessary to embrace focusing or some other healing technique to know that medications that suppress emotions should not be taken in the absence of intensive therapy aimed at relieving the underlying pressures that build up durng their use. Too many promising young people have needlessly lost their precious lives in the past year alone to prove that point.
Joe Shea is Editor-in-Chief of The American Reporter.