One week after the Virginia Tech shootings, one of the major questions arising from that tragedy remains relatively unanswered: was Cho Seung-hui on commonly available antidepressants and did they contribute to his murderous rage?
It’s virtually impossible to establish authoritatively whether he was on the pills or not, and we won’t know until there’s a full inquest. But, in general, there now seems little doubt that such drugs do play a key role in incidents of suicide and homicide.
The most popular drugs — prozac, zoloft, etc — are known as SSRIs and they increase the amount of the brain chemical “serotonin” in the synapses. Right from their inception it was known that such drugs can make a small number of patients more suicidal (previously thought to be 1%, now about 5%) — presumably because in many cases such drugs increase energy without dealing with underlying conflicts, thus magnifying them.
Later, the correlation between commencing such drugs and acts of homicide became so frequent that it suggested more than coincidence — and once again, the notion of depression as anger-turned-inward (which could easily be turned outward) suggested why this might be the case. After years of research and lawsuits, the American FDA in 2005 finally added “violence” to its warning list for such drugs. Critical psychiatrist Peter Breggin has since written an overview of studies showing the radical violent behavioural changes that can be caused by such drugs.
So why isn’t more attention being paid to such possibilities in the Virginia Tech case? Simply because Americans have given up on the possibility that anything can be done about it. Instead, the debate turns on anything but possible contributing factors to the 30 campus massacres that have occurred in the past 10 years in the US — Newt Gingrich blaming it on liberalism, poet Nikki Giovanni comparing the deaths to a “baby elephant losing its mother”, whether a campus should have rung a mourning bell 32 or 33 times (thus including Cho), and, above all, a pre-emptive strike against any notion that the event might have something to do with American culture per se.
Yet, at the time of the 1976 New York power blackout, Alexander Solzhenitsyn described the subsequent riots and lootings as a sign that the US was not really a society at all. The description holds, but now so many people realise it that realisation must be held off at all costs — even that of rational analysis.