Wow! What a title! Sounds like an Agatha Christie novel or a cheap horror movie. It’s actually the title of a BBC Panorama documentary which hypothesises a link between SSRI antidepressant medication and an increased propensity to commit violent acts.
Is there a link? Statistically yes maybe. A very tiny percentage of people taking SSRIs experience psychosis as a side effect, but statistically more people are killed as a result of trying to put on a pair of trousers. So why is there not a documentary about trouser deaths called Leg Ends Of The Fall? I believe it is because of the manner of the respective causes of death.
Accidental deaths caused by embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions would be uncomfortable, voyeuristic subject matter. You don’t kick a man when he’s down through no fault of his own. So what’s the difference between that and someone who’s mentally ill through no fault of their own?
It’s because violent mentally ill people are juicy subject matter. A ratings winner. The subject retains a ghoulish car crash fascination. The notion that mental illness equates to violent, dangerous derangement is deeply embedded in the public’s psyche. Why else were lunatics locked in mental asylums, strapped in straitjackets, if not to prevent them from being a danger to others?
There are many variations of the escaped mental patient urban myth, with invariably innocents being slaughtered by the rampaging, almost supernatural human monster. The thing cannot be reasoned with; it is beyond reason. It is animalistic, bloodthirsty, evil. Something to be hunted and killed on sight.
The factual reality is that mentally ill people are more likely to be a victim of violence than the general population. Only 3% of mentally ill people ever commit a criminal act of aggression. That means that 97% never commit an act of aggression. The person a mentally ill person is most likely to harm or kill is themselves. Suicide is the biggest cause of death in men aged 20-49 in the U.K. and the biggest cause of death of teenage girls worldwide.
What then is the basis for a 21st century documentary about mentally ill killers, that lingers over gory details? According to Shelley Jofre, the BBC reporter who made the documentary, it is a public interest story. I see that it’s a story the public will be interested in, but is it in the public interest?
The Panorama programme claims that the incredibly rare side effect of SSRI medication causing psychosis, potentially leading to aggression and violence, needs to be more widely known to both the general public and to people taking SSRIs. The problem with this argument is that family doctors and prescribing psychiatrists already weigh up potential side effect risks and discuss them with patients before prescribing. And there are many possible side effects from taking SSRI medications, the most common of which include weight gain, sedation, fatigue and loss of sex drive. The average person taking an SSRI has been informed by their doctor of likely side effects, thoroughly read the leaflet that comes with the medication, probably read up some more about the risks on Wikipedia and discussed the risks with other people taking the same medication. The vast majority of mentally ill people are already very well aware of the potential and actual side effects of taking SSRI medications.
What about the wider population? Don’t they deserve to know the danger too? If the 40,000,000 prescriptions for SSRI medications in the U.K. every year are going to trigger a nationwide bloodbath, don’t the public have a right to be warned? Therein lies the central weakness in the programme’s premise. 40,000,000 SSRI prescriptions per year already in the U.K., no mental patient slasher movie apocalypse as a result.
I don’t deny that there are records of isolated cases where an SSRI may have contributed to a tragic incident. But is the potential danger both proven and statistically significant enough to warrant making an hour long documentary about it? What about the much more prevalent side effect of an increased risk of death by suicide among teenagers when they first start taking some, but not all, SSRI medications? That kills more people. Surely that’s more newsworthy?
The unpalatable reality is that few care about mentally ill teenagers killing themselves. It’s dull TV, compared to bloodsoaked rampaging mental patients. Real Hannibal Lecters lurking in our midst.
This perpetuates the myth that mentally ill people are inherently violent and a well behaved one is just one waiting to explode in a killing frenzy at any moment. Drugs are supposed to suppress this huge danger, not enhance it. A dribbling, sedated, locked up mental patient is the only safe one.
This is of course total nonsense. One in four of us will suffer a mental illness in our lifetime. The vast majority of people will be treated with a combination of medication and therapy. Out in society. Not locked up. Normal, but unwell people, not dangerous in any way.
What are the likely outcomes of the documentary being aired?
There is a small possibility that a handful of people who are taking SSRIs and experiencing psychosis as a side effect will realise what has been wrong and seek help and advice from their doctor. This is a good thing.
Something which is much more likely is that some mentally ill people currently benefitting from taking SSRI medications will stop taking them, to avoid the remote possibility of becoming violent. The benefits of that medication will then stop. Clinically depressed people will slide back into the abyss. People with anxiety disorders will retreat back into tormented Hell. Some of these people may well take their own lives as a result. The documentary could possibly cause more deaths, not fewer.
Then there is the stigma issue. Some think that the term “mental health stigma” is overused. In the face of the ongoing tide of derision, fear, mistrust and demonisation of mentally ill people, I can assure you that the term could be used much more indeed. Just like black people and gay people have had to stand up and say enough is enough, mentally ill people are now standing up to be counted.
My name is Patrick. I suffer from clinical depression, severe OCD and PTSD. I am a mentally ill person, a loving husband, a good father. I take a high dose of Prozac, an SSRI medication. It helps me to function normally. I’m not an unquestioning fanboy of Prozac. I have side effects from taking it, but I’m zero danger to anyone. Enough is enough. The unwarranted stigma against all the ordinary people just like me has to stop. This documentary will perpetuate stigma and prejudice. That is harmful and dangerous. Much more dangerous than a rare medication side effect.