Dylann Roof in custody. Image: Getty

    Do antidepressants cause gun massacres? Peter Hitchens wants to know…

    26 June 2015

    In a blog post published after the massacre of black worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina, by Dylann Roof, a young white racist, Peter Hitchens suggests that there is a link between drug use and rampage killings.

    He would like to see an inquiry into the possible connection, with special focus on his bête noire, ‘antidepressants’ (which he mysteriously puts in inverted commas). Indeed, he needs an inquiry because the evidence is thin on the ground. As he admits himself, some notorious mass murders have been carried out by people who weren’t on antidepressants so far as we know:

    The 2010 Cumbria shootings by the taxi-driver, Derrick Bird, remain equally inexplicable if the shooter is assumed to be rational. Only if he was unhinged can the actions be explained consistently. But individual madness is rare in humans who have not undergone severe personal shock and tragedy, or some sort of external physical trauma, physical or chemical. But there was only one hint that he may have sought help for his mental health, oddly in a report in an Australian newspaper, otherwise nothing. At the time I suspected he might have been taking prescription ‘antidepressants’, and asked if this was so. I was told that it wasn’t so, though I am not sure how this was established beyond question.

    I asked Hitchens on Twitter if he believes there is anything more than correlation between mass murder and the use of antidepressants. I didn’t get a straightforward answer. I suggested he was a ‘contrarian’. That produced a reply:

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    Then he blocked me.

    Anyway, this is how Hitchens puts it in his blog post:

    My main opinion is that correlations between drugtaking (legal and illegal) and irrational violence increasingly demand a proper inquiry into whether there is another more powerful and significant common factor in these massacres.

    If you don’t know anything about Peter Hitchens, he’s the man who thinks addiction doesn’t exist. In his book The War We Never Fought he claims that law enforcement and government officials have been deceiving us for decades. They want us to believe they are waging a war against drugs, while they cynically abandon the last weapons in our arsenal against them.

    He thinks so few people agree with him on this subject ‘because this generation is corrupted by drugs’. Drugs are also the reason most graduates haven’t read Dickens. Most things are the fault of drugs, it would seem. And of not listening to Peter Hitchens.

    This is a laboured point, but it bears repetition. Correlation does not equal causation. Hitchens is too intelligent to make such an elementary mistake. He never actually says that drugs are the cause of rampage killings. He merely calls for an inquiry.

    Are drugs anything more than a common factor in mass killings? Think about it for a moment. Is it not more likely that people who commit mass murder are depressed, and therefore take treatment for depression? What else could an expensive and pointless inquiry discover?

    Hitchens goes on to make another association that reminds me of the – extremely speculative – theory that removing lead from petrol and paint has dramatically reduced crime:

    There had been other such incidents before then, but the random shootings of schoolfellows only really begin about 35 years ago. Did guns become easier to obtain in 1979? No, but by then the now-universal policy of ‘treating’ mental illness with powerful mind-altering drugs, instead of admitting the mentally ill to hospitals, was well-established.

    You might call this the ‘just saying…’ school of epistemology. You might also note that lots of mental problems are addressed by cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which doesn’t involve drugs, and that plenty of mentally ill people are put in hospital.

    Clearly Hitchens believes that drugs are the cause of much that is wrong with the world. But in the case of rampage killings he merely dangles the idea in front of us.

    I hope he won’t mind if I indulge in some speculation of my own. I’m not accusing Hitchens of intellectual dishonesty – I’m sure he believes his suspicions are well founded – but this theory seems designed to attract attention, by a man who apparently can’t get enough of it. As he explained in an interview with the Guardian:

    ‘Well, it’s what I’ve always dreamed of – of being the kind of person who gets written about. I dreamed of being part of the exciting people who were in the arguments.’