I’m a 55-year-old woman currently taking antidepressants for comorbid Depression due to Complex PTSD and Dissociative Identity Disorder.
Contrary to popular belief, I am not entirely numb inside (I was when I was depressed, funnily enough), I still have a full life, and I’m not a murderer. I didn’t think I’d need to clarify that last one – the whole not being a murderer thing – but apparently, I do, because soon the BBC will air an edition of Panorama titled: ‘A prescription for murder?’.
As the show’s description explains, this episode of Panorama will explore the question: ‘Is it possible that a pill prescribed by your doctor can turn you into a killer?’
The episode description goes on to explain that a ‘tiny minority’ of people experience side-effects from SSRI (that stands for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor if you were wondering) antidepressants that can lead to ‘psychosis, violence, possibly even murder’. The show will look at the case of James Holmes, the man who murdered 12 people and injured 70 people in 2012 at the midnight premiere of a Batman film in Aurora, Colorado. James Holmes was on SSRI antidepressants. He committed a mass killing. So, the show will ask, ‘did the SSRI antidepressant he had been prescribed play a part in the killings?’
Now, obviously, as the show hasn’t aired yet, I can’t say how sensitively these themes are dealt with. It’s possible that the show will actually answer the ‘is it possible that a pill prescribed by your doctor can turn you into a killer?’ the question with a resounding ‘no’.
It’s possible that they’ll explore the question in an in-depth, unsensationalised way, and look at all the different possible factors that may have lead to people committing murder. But the concept of the show, the title, and the wording of the questions it poses, are worrying.
While the description does clarify that psychosis and violence are side-effects on a ‘tiny minority’ of people on antidepressants face, centering an entire one hour documentary around that minority seems to blow it up beyond its actual proportions.
The documentary will add yet more stories to the ‘antidepressants are bad’ movement, which, if you didn’t know, is already going strong. There is still a huge stigma around taking medication for mental health. There’s shame around admitting to needing meds to feel okay, embarrassment around asking your doctor for a prescription, and there’s a great deal of fear around side-effects.
The anti-antidepressants movement pops up every time anyone mentions they’re taking pills, in the form of comments repeating anecdotes about their mum’s friend losing her mind as a result of two weeks of Prozac, memes about the forest being a ‘real’ antidepressant, and messages telling people they need to get off the pills, sharpish so they can ‘actually tackle the problem’.
Yes, the very real issue of side-effects of pills needs to be addressed. It’s absurd that when I was prescribed antidepressants, my doctor didn’t give me any advice on what to do if I experienced the side-effects listed in the folded pamphlet in the box – which included blindness, hostility, and suicidal thoughts. That’s something that needs to be tackled but the way we explore these side-effects is important.
Are we coming at it from the side of the people who need antidepressants, and exploring side-effects in a way that benefits them, giving advice and offering support? Or are we just making that list of side-effects seem even scarier, with dramatic headlines and stories about how awful antidepressants can be? Because if you ask me, the latter option has been done plenty.
We’re always being told about the dark, dangerous side of antidepressants. And that does exist – there are risks around medication that we need to be aware of, and it’d be silly to suggest that antidepressants are a magical risk-free fix but when do we hear the stories of antidepressants going brilliantly? Where are the documentaries about people whose lives have been saved by antidepressants? Where are the shows about people who’ve found love because their medication helps them to socialise?
They might not sound as exciting as ‘DOES THIS PILL TURN YOU INTO A MURDERER’, but I think they’re much more needed.
When we only focus on the bad parts of antidepressants, we make people who need them more scared to ask for medication that may help. We make them worry about side-effects rather than thinking about the potential benefits. We make them scared to bring up side-effects with their doctor when they do happen, because they’re worried they’re more serious than they actually are.
We also tell people on antidepressants that they are bad, bad people who are doing something terrible. We make people view those on antidepressants with fear and uncertainty.
Can we please stop demonising antidepressants? Not everyone who hears about ‘A prescription for murder?’ will watch it. They’ll just read about it, and ‘antidepressants can make people murderers’ is the bit that’ll stick with them.
People with mental health issues need support and understanding. We do not need to be demonised, for murderers to be looped in with anyone on antidepressants, and for our life-saving medication to be blamed for people’s deaths.
I am someone on antidepressants. I am not a murderer.
If my antidepressants did make me experience psychosis, aggression, or any other side-effects that could lead to a risk for myself and others, however, my friends and family would step in to talk to my doctor, because I’m now comfortable enough talking about meds that I’ve explained to other people what to watch out for, and when to step in if I should ever need help.
These kinds of shows won’t help people to have those conversations, they won’t give people hope that other medications will work better for them, and they will prevent people from getting the help they need, put off by the fear of medication being a big, evil thing that’ll change who they are.
Talk more about antidepressants. Research medication, and do shows about their very real side-effects. Talk about the mental health crisis as a whole – we could definitely do with more conversations around that but can we please, please not frame antidepressants as a ‘prescription for murder’? People who commit murder do so for all kinds of different reasons, many of which relate to mental illness – which, in many cases, goes untreated. We shouldn’t treat them as a magical fix-all, but we can’t treat them as an evil life-ruiner, either.
For a small minority, yes, antidepressants may, possibly, potentially lead to serious side effects. But that any relationship to murder isn’t yet proven, and, realistically, it’d be very difficult to prove that antidepressants are the cause rather than the mental health issues they’re treating.
What we can prove, however, is that antidepressants have saved lives. I can certainly say they’ve saved mine. I still struggle with a lot of the symptoms of PTSD but I can truly say I am not depressed and that is truly a blessing.