By Citizens Commission on Human Rights International, Special for USDR
A BBC Panorama documentary, “A Prescription for Murder?” that aired in the UK last week, explored the role of antidepressants in the shooting rampage committed by James Holmes at the Aurora, Colorado cinema on July 20, 2012. Holmes, with no prior history of violence, was taking an antidepressant linked to violent and suicidal behavior when he coldly executed 12 innocent people and injured dozens more at a midnight screening of the Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises. An internationally renowned psychopharmacologist, Prof. David Healy, who interviewed Holmes prior to his trial, told the BBC, “I believe if he hadn’t taken the [antidepressant] sertraline, he wouldn’t have murdered anyone.”
Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) International, a mental health watchdog that has been documenting the effects of psychotropic drugs for 48 years, especially violent and suicidal effects, said the documentary vindicates many experts and advocacy groups that have warned about such dangers. The group says it should serve as a catalyst for law enforcement officers, coroners, and the courts to investigate psychotropic drug links to acts of violence.
Through Freedom of Information requests, Panorama reported it had found that antidepressants have been associated with 28 reports of murder referred to the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency in the last three decades. Murderous thoughts were also believed to be linked to the drugs on 32 occasions, according to the BBC program.
Panorama detailed how the psychiatrist who treated James Holmes had tripled his antidepressant dose from 50mg to 150mg per day over several appointments. There was, then, a steep decline in James’s behavior, BBC reported. Medical records show that fewer than four weeks after starting the pills, Holmes was showing “psychotic level thinking. Guarded, paranoid, hostile thoughts he won’t elaborate on.”
Holmes wrote about the initial effects of going on sertraline. He went back to see the psychiatrist and said the drug hadn’t helped his obsessive thoughts. She doubled the dose of sertraline from 50mg to 100mg. Healy believes this made Holmes’s mental state worse: “…when they are causing a problem, increasing the dose is a recipe for disaster.” Before meeting Holmes, Prof. Healy had “doubted the pills had played a part. But by the end of his prison visit he had reached a controversial conclusion,” BBC’s Shelley Jofre reported. “These killings would never have happened had it not been for the medication James Holmes had been prescribed,” stated Healy.[v]
Panorama also detailed how:
- In 2011, Holmes accepted an offer to study neuroscience at University of Colorado Denver. In 2012, his first proper relationship with a fellow graduate student ended and she suggested he seek help at the campus student wellness center.
- On 21 March 2012, Holmes had his first appointment there with a psychiatrist, who prescribed him the antidepressant, sertraline.
- At his fourth appointment on 17 April, Holmes told the psychiatrist that his homicidal thoughts had increased.
- On 11 June 2012, Holmes dropped out of university. Just before that, he had one last meeting with his psychiatrist and her colleague. He had a prescription for his antidepressant for up to around June 26 and the shootings were on July 20.
- Holmes himself wrote in a notebook, which he posted to the psychiatrist just before the shootings, about the effects the antidepressant was having on him. “Anxiety and fear disappears. No more fear, no more fear of failure,” he wrote. “No fear of consequences.”
“Aside from the fact that you have a guy who is now actively beginning to think and plan about harming others in a way that he just hadn’t been doing before, you have a change of personality. This is a totally different person,” says Healy.
In another BBC article, headlined, “My Son, the Mass Murderer,” Holmes’ motherArlene, said she didn’t even know James was being treated by a psychiatrist until over a month before the shooting. On June 11, 2012, Arlene got a call from the psychiatrist who told her that James was dropping out of the University. According to Arlene, the psychiatrist never informed her that her son was having murderous thoughts. “She never said he was thinking of killing people,” Arlene told jurors during Holmes’ trial in 2015. “I would have been crawling on all fours to get to him. She didn’t tell me. She didn’t tell me. She didn’t tell me.”
Before he faced a court of law, Holmes was evaluated by a number of psychiatrists. “No two doctors reached exactly the same conclusion,” Jofre wrote.
There were diagnoses of schizophrenia, schizoid personality disorder, schizotypal disorder – or no diagnosable disorder at all. Some thought Holmes couldn’t legally be held responsible for his crime, on grounds of insanity. Others disagreed, arguing he still knew right from wrong when he carried out the shootings, according to BBC. Thankfully, CCHR says, the insanity defense did not prevail in this horrific tragedy.
Psychiatrist Phillip Resnick, Director of the Division of Forensic Psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, provided a theory to Panorama that the sertralinehelped reduce Holmes’ anxiety but with “his particular combination of homicidal desires, the reduction in the anxiety may have facilitated other forces…I think, at least in James Holmes’ mind, he believed that while he was on the medication it had an effect on him and by reducing the anxiety helped to free him to carry out the mass killing.” [Emphasis added]
It’s a theory that CCHR discounts in light of there currently being at least 27 international drug regulatory agency warnings on psychiatric drugs being linked to mania, hostility, aggression, violence and homicidal ideation (thoughts). It says it has been one of its most important campaigns, in the interests of informed consent, to raise awareness about the risks of psychotropic drugs causing adverse effects the person may be told is a sign of their “mental illness,” rather than changing their mind and behavior. As the group details:
- In 1989, CCHR raised the alarm about antidepressants being linked to violence in testimony given during the Coroner’s Inquest into the death of Joseph Wesbecker of Louisville, Kentucky. Wesbecker had a high therapeutic level of the antidepressant fluoxetine in his system when he gunned down eight co-workers and wounded 12 more at a Standard Gravure printing plant before killing himself. Three days prior, Weskbecker’s psychiatrist described him as exhibiting an “increased level of agitation and anger,” and had planned to discontinue the antidepressant prescribed Wesbecker. The jury ruled that the drugs “may have been a contributing factor” to the rampage.
- In 1990 and 1991, CCHR filed submissions on the documented risks of the newer SSRI antidepressants to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In March 1991, Dr. Thomas Laughren, head of the FDA’s Psychiatric Drug Products Division wrote a memo acknowledging that the issue of antidepressants potentially causing suicidal behavior had been raised by CCHR. He recommended a labeling change for the first SSRI antidepressant to include a statement about suicidal thoughts.
- On September 20, 1991, the FDA’s Psychopharmacological Drugs Advisory Committee (PDAC) held a hearing into CCHR and others’ evidence, including medical studies linking an antidepressant to acts of violence, self-harm, and suicide. At least five out of 10 of the members on the Committee had financial conflicts of interest with manufacturers of antidepressants totaling at least $1.1 million. Not surprisingly then, the psychiatrists claimed there was no sound evidence to conclude that an antidepressant caused suicide or other violent behavior, according to CCHR. In 2004, the FDA overturned this decision adding a black box warning about suicide in those younger than 18 taking SSRI antidepressants, which was later increased to age 24.
- The groundbreaking article, “Guns and Doses,” written in 1999 by former Congressional staffer and award-winning journalist, Kelly Patricia O’Meara, reported: “Although the list of school-age children who have gone on violent rampages is growing at a disturbing rate—and the shootings at Columbine became a national wake-up call—few in the mental-health community have been willing to talk about the possibility that the heavily prescribed drugs and violence may be linked.” Such drugs were the common denominator between the cases of school shooters she cited at the time.
- In November 2002, Douglas Kennedy reporting for Fox National News produced the first national TV exposé about the link between psychiatric drugs and school shootings in a compelling three-part series. CCHR’s National U.S. president, Bruce Wiseman, was interviewed for the show.
- In 2008, CCHR produced an 11 minute documentary, “Prescription for Violence” detailing the rampant shootings that had occurred in the U.S. by those taking prescription mind-altering drugs. Updated information was added to subsequent award-winning CCHR documentaries.
In July 2015, Holmes was found guilty on all counts of murder and multiple counts of attempted murder and was sentenced to 12 life sentences plus 3,318 years in prison. In sentencing Holmes, Judge Carlos A. Samour Jr. said the trial had provided a platform for the community to know the people who were lost, and to learn about how such horrific, violent acts affect hundreds if not thousands of people.
CCHR says the judge’s compelling words which, along with the media coverage of the UK documentary of Holmes and the drug he was prescribed, should serve as a warning and as a guide to ensuring all senseless violent crimes are investigated to determine if there are any potential psychotropic drugs involved and to make this publicly known.
CCHR is currently producing a detailed report on this issue as a public service to consumers, families, legislators, doctors and law enforcement officers.As a nonprofit, CCHR relies on memberships and donations to carry out its mission and to research, write and produce such reports. Click here to support the cause.
 “Antidepressants linked to 28 murders in three decades, BBC investigation finds, The Independent, 26 July, 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/antidepressants-ssris-muders-suicide-panorama-depression-anxiety-side-effects-a7859876.html.
 Shelley Jofre, “THE BATMAN KILLER—PRESCRIPTION FOR MURDER?: JAMES HOLMES, A YOUNG MAN WITH NO RECORD OF VIOLENCE, MURDERED 12 PEOPLE WATCHING BATMAN IN A COLORADO CINEMA IN 2012. DID AN SSRI ANTIDEPRESSANT, PRESCRIBED BY A DOCTOR, PLAY A PART IN THE KILLING?” BBC online, 26 July 2017, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/resources/idt-sh/aurora_shooting.
 Catriona White, “My son, the mass murderer,” BBC online, http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/item/f4458f48-787f-4159-9d1b-5ae212e108b8.
 Op. cit., Shelley Jofre, “THE BATMAN KILLER—PRESCRIPTION FOR MURDER?”
 Op. cit., Catriona White.
 Op. cit., Shelley Jofre, “THE BATMAN KILLER—PRESCRIPTION FOR MURDER?”
 “Prescription for Murder?”, Panorama, BBC, 26July 2017.
 Neal Knox Report, “Mass Murder Link,” Shotgun News, Omaha, Nebraska, 10 Dec. 1989.
 “Lilly Seeks Methods to Prevent Suicide,” The Indianapolis Star, 20 Oct. 1991.
 Kelly P. O’Meara, “Guns & Doses—Drugging Children,” Insight Magazine, Vol. 15, No. 24, 28 June 1999.
 Op. cit., Catriona White.
 “Theater shooter Holmes gets 12 life sentences, plus 3,318 years,” CNN, 27 Aug. 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/26/us/james-holmes-aurora-massacre-sentencing/index.html.
SOURCE Citizens Commission on Human Rights International