The Higham School Incident
There was an incident at a school in Britain recently that I think it noteworthy. A teenage boy planned to commit a massacre. He brought a gun and a knife to school. He says he was "moments away" from using the gun to start killing people at the school when he decided not to and called the 999 emergency number (Britain's equivalent of 911 in the US).
No one was harmed.
This article in the Telegraph (a British newspaper) describes the incident:
Because he is a juvenile, British law does not allow his name to be published, and of course, medical records are also private. Also, after someone has committed a murder, any claim that mental illness was the reason for their actions is viewed with suspicion since it might be just an attempt to evade punishment with an "insanity defense" in court.
This time, it's different. Although he did face charges for what he did, he did not go through with his plan. He did not actually hurt anyone. It is worth looking at this case because really, this is what we'd like to see happen when someone thinks about carrying out a massacre. The best outcome would be for the person planning the crime to decide not to do it. Ideally this decision would have been made before he brought weapons to a school, but he did meet the most important deadline for this decision -- he did it before pulling the trigger.
Since there have been so many other incidents similar to this one which resulted in mass murder, it almost seems strange that this boy did not go through with his murderous plan. But that's not really what's strange. The article says that Judge Andrew Lockhart QC, the judge in this case, said the boy was a model son and pupil, that he had led a good and productive life prior to this incident and that "this event was outside the character that you have exhibited for your whole life."
What's strange is not that he decided not to do it. What's strange is that someone like this would come close to attempting to carry out a massacre in the first place. We have heard enough stories like this that we have a special category in our minds for it. It's a "school shooting" story. We know these things happen and to most people they seem inexplicable. Others have found a somewhat satisfactory explanation in reports of bullying or mental illness or just the fact that "some people are evil."
And yet, here is a case where even the judge said this was a person who gave every appearance of being a good person for his whole life and then one day decided to commit mass murder. Why?
In many school massacres, you can't ask the killers why they did it. The incident usually ends when they kill themselves or are killed by police. This time, he's still alive and when he called 999, he told the call-handlers his reason. He is reported to have said he felt "white hot anger" and said of his anger, "I don't know why I have it, I just had to get it out."
Can we could believe that someone could, out of nowhere, be driven by a "white hot anger" without even understanding any reason for it? Can we believe he is telling the truth and that this was not any part of his normal character or mindset, but was like some kind of demonic possession where something outside his control made him feel an intense, but apparently causeless emotion and an overwhelming desire to kill? Not to kill a specific person who has wronged him, but just to kill "anyone".
Most people have never experienced anything like this so it doesn't "ring true." Perhaps that is because there is a key detail that most people don't know, a key detail that is well known to science.
There is a power that can drive people to do this. There is something that can cause a sudden onslaught of rage that drives people to violent massacres and suicide. That power is drugs.
I'm not talking about cocaine or heroin and certainly not marijuana. There are drugs and medicines that are known to cause uncontrollable rage and homocidal or suicidal actions.
A type of drug that is well known to cause exactly this sort of side effect is Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRI).
Here is wikipedia's article on SSRIs:
And here is wikipedia's article on SSRI discontinuation syndrome and the more broadly defined anti-depressant discontinuation syndrome:
Murderous rages and suicide can be caused by these types of medication. Couterintuitively, those kinds of reaction are most likely to happen after the patient stops taking the drug or has a reduction in dosage.
Note that in this incident, the Higham School Incident, the article quotes the judge as mentioning that the boy had depression and social anxiety disorder. If you look at the SSRI article on wikipedia under the "Medical Uses" section, you can see that both of those conditions are treatable with SSRI drugs. Here is the quote (emphasis added):
The main indication for SSRIs is major depressive disorder (also called "major depression", "clinical depression" and often simply "depression"). SSRIs are frequently prescribed for anxiety disorders, such as social anxiety disorder, panic disorders, obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), eating disorders, chronic pain and occasionally, for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They are also frequently used to treat depersonalization disorder, although generally with poor results.
So he had both of the top two conditions on this list of things that SSRIs treat and he described classic symptoms of SSRI Discontinuation Syndrome.
I'm not trying to comment on whether the sentence was appropriate or enter into a debate about guns. I'm just trying to point out that science has given us some information that seems highly relevant to understanding this case.
Millions of people have been prescribed SSRIs and almost none of them commit massacres. Almost none. But if you look at the list of people who do commit school shootings or similar senseless massacres, you will find a startlingly high percentage of them are known to have been diagnosed with conditions that are routinely treated with SSRI drugs. We usually do not know what medication they were taking because even a mass murderer's medical records are private. Despite this, some of them are known to have been taking SSRI drugs. Sometimes we are told that they were no longer taking the drug at the time of the massacre as if that rules out the drug as a reason for the massacre. SSRI discontinuation syndrome occurs when the patient has stopped taking the drug.