Mass Killings and Brain Chemical Imbalances

Immediately following the mass killings at Northern Illinois University, Virginia Tech, and elsewhere, an immediate connection was made in newspaper sub-headlines to the person’s having recently “gone off medications.”

We have heard this connection made so many times that we know the inferences we are supposed to make: that the person was “mentally ill” and that the associated violent tendences were being held in check by “medication.”

This is one of those things we are taught to believe that have little or no evidence to support them. First, there is no evidence that the so-called mentally ill are any more violent than people not so labeled. Indeed one could make a good statistical argument that the opposite is true, but the commercial media will use any tragedy of this kind to make the case for their pharmaceutical company sponsors.

Second, there is no evidence that the distressing conduct that gets people labeled mentally ill is produced by so-called brain chemical imbalances. Psychiatrists do not know how to measure brain chemistry in a living human being; they measure metabolites, which is a very different thing. Psychiatrists learned what they think they know about brain chemistry in the so-called mentally ill from the brains of dead mice.

Third, unlike, say, diabetes, which is a disease for which we can correlate blood sugar “imbalance” with consequent problems of circulation, retinal damage, etc., we have no idea how much of a so-called brain chemical imbalance might be responsible for minor quirks of behavior or more serious departures from acceptable (and legal) conduct.

It might be that all that neurotoxic medications do is act, as some of us have always thought, as chemical straitjackets. But I believe that there are other things at work in the violent behavior of mass killers, and that it is the family where we should start to look. I know that this prospect would be distressing for the family, and it might even seem cruel to subject parents and siblings to scrutiny at such a time. But if we’re going to get to the bottom of at least some of these killings, that is the price that will have to be paid.