Posted by: L | April 20, 2007

Virginia Tech – antidepressants and violence?

I am glad that the media is at last focusing on what, for me, was always at the heart of this story – psychiatric illness. We don’t always recognize it when it’s present, we stigmatize it, we treat it with powerful drugs that we don’t fully understand, and we fail to recognize the side effects.

For a short period I taught at an inner city school for children who are “intensity 5” level – that is, kids with behavioral problems that require a fair level of supervision and restraint.

What I saw first hand is what may have been playing out in the Virginia Tech affair….I say may, because I don’t know right now to what extent Cho’s behavior was influenced – if at all – by drugs….some reports say there were no drugs. I don’t know if they are premature or not.
At the school I saw children between the ages of, say, 6 and 14 plied with a concoction of pills. ostensibly because they had mental problems. Well, in many case, it seemed to me that it was the pill-popping that was the cause of their problems. Ritalin was given routinely to young boys who seemed to be simply bored and restless. Nor was any attention paid to the childrens’ diet, which was very poor – the cheapest white bread, poor-quality grape jelly and ultra sweet soft drinks with coloring agents in them. I was convinced that some of the children were suffering from food addictions and malnutrition, rather than mental illness.

Any signs of hyperactivity, rebelliousness, or lethargy – the normal moods of children – were promptly treated with a range of drugs, from Ritalin to Prozac, this despite the serious side-effects associated with them. Many SSRI drugs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, a class of antidepressants) are linked with side-effects worse than the problems for which they are prescribed, severe facial tics, for one.

I don’t mean that whatever Cho’s medication (if there was any), it wasn’t warranted. We don’t know that his killing rampage was at all induced by mood-altering drugs. We don’t know much of anything about this angle yet.

And, it is the case that Cho behaved very methodically in the days preceding the killing – waiting the requisite period to buy a second gun, preparing the multimedia packet, going to the gym

[– why, I wonder…. to get in physical shape for the day or to look better in the video? Does any one else see the exhibitionistic element here? Too bad the media played into it by replaying that video so many times].

His behavior doesn’t sound obviously like drug-induced mania — to a layman. But again, people can exhibit the effects of drugs – or of mental illness – in very different ways.

So, all sorts of questions need to be raised — and they are being raised, fortunately.

Arianna Huffington at the Huffington Post has done a piece about the role of drugs in a numer of shootings: Kip Kinkel in Oregon in 1998 (Prozac); Red Lake Indian Reservation shooter Jeff Weise (Prozac); James Wilson in Greenwood, S. Carolina (anti-depressants); T J Solomon in Conyers, George (Ritalin); Eric Harris at Columbine (Luvox).

According to the the manufacturer of Luvox, 4% of children and youth taking the drug actually develop mania. According to studies, Prozac causes mania in 6% of cases.

I am adding this excerpt which suggests that Cho was not on antidepressants:

While the Associated Press is reporting Cho “may” have been on prescribed antidepressants, according to ABC news:

“Some news accounts have suggested that Cho had a history of antidepressant use, but senior federal officials tell ABC News that they can find no record of such medication in the government’s files. This does not completely rule out prescription drug use, including samples from a physician, drugs obtained through illegal Internet sources, or a gap in the federal database, but the sources say theirs is a reasonably complete search.”

I am hearing now that Cho suffered from autism.

His relations describe him as being difficult to talk to from childhood, and not communicating even with his parents.


  1. That australian report says Cho suffered from autism AFTER he arrived in US…thats odd. Was he autistic before?

    Just because the authorities cant find any record of such medication means nothing. Ever hear of sharing medicines? Thats what the Columbine killers did.

  2. I will check on that. The reports by relatives suggest this was a problem since childhood.
    And good point about sharing medicines. I confess to being suspicious about these disclosures about lack of records. There has to be an element of self-exculpation involved at some level.

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