December 22, 2012

Saturday Morning Essay: finishing up on SSRI use and school shootings

Working my way out of this intellectual box canyon concerning SSRI use and school shootings, I would summarize as follows:  to an extent, the perception that an event such as that which occurred at Newtown indicates the end of civilization in America is the result of what statisticians would call emphasis bias.  For example, here is how Jim Kunstler appraised the meaning of the tragedy in his latest Clusterfuck blog post:
"Finally the USA has an act that perfectly expresses its true spirit as the horror show nation among nations: the random mass slaughter of little children by a maniac. Is it not so that the failure to protect little children from harm is the most shameful weakness an adult human can present?"
 I understand the reaction; however, calling America a "horror show" over and over does not really advance our understanding of the phenomenon of school shootings.  In a way, school massacres are sui generis, both in America and in the world at large.  They're very, very weird.  They also run counter to the general trend in violent crime in the United States.

In the past 20 years, for instance, the murder rate in the United States has dropped by almost half, from 9.8 per 100,000 people in 1991 to 5.0 in 2009. Meanwhile, robberies were down 10 percent in 2010 from the year before and 8 percent in 2009.  Christian Science Monitor.
That's a difficult statistic for a doomsayer like Mr. Kunstler to make sense of.  The country is becoming less violent, probably as the result of two social phenomena:  the graying of America (demographically, the United States has "matured out" of its prime crime-committing years); and the end or abatement of the cocaine craze of the 1980's, which introduced a lot of heavy-duty killing in connection with a drug which tended to make its users frigging nuts, and also brought into the USA a lot of badass dealers and soldiers of Colombian narco-gangs.

The solutions being proposed to the problem of school shootings seem to center around outlawing of assault weapons (a good idea) or a moralistic behavioral modification concerning violent video games (this is Wayne LaPierre's idea; this creepy, sepulchral figure from the NRA can be counted on to talk about everything except guns).  I honestly don't think video games are the problem; I think it's a poor way for children to expend their youthful energy, and I believe they would much better off playing in the real, as opposed to virtual, world, but if playing violent video games actually led to school massacres (all by itself), then not a child would be left standing in the American school system today. Kids (especially boys) play violent video games today with the same frequency and alacrity as we played "army" and cowboys & Indians when I was growing up.  Young males act out battle games, one way or another.

To understand the problem of school shootings would require a pretty serious multivariate regression analysis of sociological phenomena, but I would think that the known correlation between SSRI use and a certain irreducible occurrence of violent behavior as a "side" effect is worth exploring systematically.  What we can say is that databases show an astonishing co-occurrence between the rapid growth of anti-depressant use since the introduction of Prozac in 1987, and the rise in school massacres over the same time period.  To repeat: correlation is not causation. I realize that. However, we drug the hell out of kids today, to improve their "attention" (Ritalin) or elevate their moods (the full medicine cabinet of SSRI's and bipolar medications), and mainly to fatten the bottom line of powerful Big Pharma, while medical research (which Big Pharma tends to fund) and government (ditto) look the other way.  Most of these drugs do not perform better, over time, than placebos or simply waiting the problem out, but in a small percentage of people, they produce very sinister and murderous effects.

If there were some way to cull the rapid-firing assault weapons from America's armamentarium of 300 million firearms so that they were no longer available for illicit use, I suspect that the destruction in school shootings would drop precipitously.  That would be a very good thing, and it makes a lot more sense than training school teachers to pack heat.  But I doubt that it would put an end to school violence.  A kid with a six-gun can still take 5 fellow students with him before he inevitably turns the gun on himself in an SSRI-driven murder/suicide.  Lord knows that's a better outcome, but it's not a "solution."  For that, the truth would have to be aired out.

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