Photo By Dennis Myers School buses and parents dropped their children off at Sparks Middle School on Monday, when the school started classes again for the first time since the Oct. 21 shooting. In the foreground, Washoe schools superintendent Pedro Martinez does an interview for a local television station.

One of the hazards of withholding information showed up in the days after the Sparks Middle School shooting—it fostered rumors. One was that the Sparks Police Department was withholding the name of the alleged attacker because his family was in the country illegally. Another, which made it into print, was that the attacker was the son of a police officer.

Reports that the school shooter might be on anti-depression or other medication also circulated around the valley in the wake of the tragedy.

“I have heard the questions asked as to if the student shooter was on the dangerous prescription anti-depression drugs,” one reader wrote to the RN&R. “According to recent studies some 90 percent of school shootings for over more than a decade have been linked to a widely prescribed type of antidepressant called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs. We have friends who have lost children to suicide who have unknowingly put their children on these drugs.”

She provided a link to a story in World News Daily, which led to an article headlined “Psych meds linked to 90% of school shootings” by Jerome Corsi. The speculative Dec. 18, 2012, article on the Newtown shooting attributed the statistic to Dr. David Healy. We were unable to confirm that Healy said or wrote what was attributed to him, though he is known as a critic of pharmacology. But the same or similar statistics appear on thousands of online sites. Some say all school shooters were on medication, others use the 90 percent figure. One says attackers in 60 school shootings were medicated.

Healy has himself been criticized for sweeping statements that express unlikely conclusions, as with his tweet, “Any drug released since 1990, esp the biologic gp of drugs, should be considered a poss candidate for late side effects.”

Forbes columnist John LaMattina responded, “Healy ascertains that any drug approved since 1990 should be considered a possible candidate for late side-effects. Where does he get this? What makes 1990 special? His implication is that the studies done in support of new drug applications (NDAs) prior to 1990 were more thorough and vigorous. This is absurd. Furthermore, his singling out of biologic drugs makes no sense at all. The fact of the matter is that the pre-approval testing of drugs in the 1980s was far less vigorous than what now happens.”

Off medication

In studies of logic, causality or causation refer to the relationship between one event and a subsequent event, with a suggestion that the first event caused the second. But sequence does not necessarily result in cause-and-effect. In the 1960s, for instance, as part of its effort to discredit the evidence that smoking caused cancer, the tobacco industry pointed out that, statistically, there was also a correlation between divorce and subsequent cancer.

In addition, there is always the possibility that there are unknown factors and events. The first and second events may not be the first and second events. They might be the second and third or the ninth and tenth.

In the case of school shooters, it might not be a case of individuals who took medications and then became violent. They could have been troubled or violent first, and so were prescribed medication. In that case, their mental problems, not the medication, could be suspect. And if they fail to take their medication, that introduces another element that might increase the risk level.

In fact, a joint report by the U.S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education on 37 incidents of targeted school shootings and school attacks that have occurred in the United States from 1974 through June 2000 found that most of the attackers had never received mental evaluations at all before the shootings. Only about a third had been in therapy or other forms of treatment, which presumably means only that number or fewer had been prescribed medication. It also indicated that one of the facts known about some of those who were prescribed medication was that they were not taking it:

“Only one-third of attackers had ever received a mental health evaluation (34 percent, n=14), and fewer than one-fifth had been diagnosed with mental health or behavior disorder prior to the attack (17 percent, n=7). … The only information collected that would indicate whether attackers had been prescribed psychiatric medications concerned medication noncompliance (i.e., failure to take medication as prescribed). Ten percent of the attackers (n=4) were known to be non-compliant with prescribed psychiatric medications.”

The study further reported evidence that the attackers were troubled:

“Although most attackers had not received a formal mental health evaluation or diagnosis, most attackers exhibited a history of suicide attempts or suicidal thoughts at some point prior to their attack (78 percent, n=32). More than half of the attackers had a documented history of feeling extremely depressed or desperate (61 percent, n=25). Approximately one-quarter of the attackers had a known history of alcohol or substance abuse (24 percent, n=10).”

Faith in dogma

Although the Secret Service/DOE report is online and easy to check, sociologist James Richardson said some people who use the 90 percent and similar claims may not be all that anxious to have the accurate information.

“They believe something,” he said. “If they get it from a semi-reliable source, they’re satisfied. There’s a tendency to believe it because they have seen it in print or online.”

The word “believe” is important with some of these pieces of misinformation. Some advocates arrive at positions because of their beliefs rather than from empirical evidence and become invested in them. Thus some information, including urban legends, can be akin to doctrine or dogma. As a result, dissuading them with evidence can be difficult because they may see it as a breach of faith.

The World News Daily article at the link provided by the RN&R reader, referencing the Newtown shooting, bore this subhead: “Expert: Psychiatric drugs likely cause of [Adam] Lanza’s extreme violence.” Yet the same article made it clear that at the time the article was written, it was not known whether the attacker was on medication (“Though there has been no definitive confirmation that drugs played a role in the Newtown, Conn., assault…”).

World News Daily, an anti-gay, birther site, is based in Cave Junction, Ore., also home to the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, a climate change denial organization that has posted a petition signed by 30,000 alleged scientists (“Everyone’s a scientist,” RN&R, Jan. 13, 2011) who challenge climate change science.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...