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What to Know About Kirstie Alley's Tweets Linking Psych Meds to the Las Vegas Shooting

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Sometimes the news isn’t as straightforward as it’s made to seem. Elizabeth Cassidy, The Mighty’s News Intern, explains what to keep in mind if you see this topic or similar stories in your newsfeed. This is The Mighty Takeaway. 

When tragedy in the form of violent shootings occur, it typically doesn’t take long for the media and the public to point fingers at mental illness and psychiatric medication. As we desperately try to answer the often unanswerable question of why, it’s tempting to look for a scapegoat as an “easier” explanation.  

Last Wednesday, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that Stephen Paddock was prescribed 50 10-milligram tablets of diazepam, which is the generic form of Valium. Before this discovery was made public, actress Kirstie Alley took to Twitter to voice her opinion about the role medications play in “creating” mass shooters (which, spoiler alert, they don’t).

Alley’s tweets are ignorant and problematic at least, speculative at most. Here’s why:

1. Mental illness and anti-anxiety medications cannot be blamed for a majority of violent acts.

Sweeping statements about medication adds to the stigma that people with mental illnesses are unstable and violent. In fact, only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts are attributed to people with a mental illness, and people with severe mental illnesses are 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Blaming psychiatric medications isn’t a far cry from blaming mental illness for violent acts. Just like there are millions of people with diagnosed mental illnesses who do not commit violent crimes, there are many out there who take medications and do not commit violent crimes. Nationally-known forensic psychiatrist Steven Pitt told The Mighty that many people take valium without incident, there are several other medications which have a similar side effect profile as valium, and consumers of these medications are functioning just fine.

A study media outlets continue to cite looked at Finnish convicted murderers and did find a correlation between the use of benzodiazepines and violence, but almost 80 percent of those in the study were also under the influence of alcohol at the time of the crime. Also, a correlation does not prove the medications caused someone to act violently — especially without information about why the medication was prescribed.

2. The Las Vegas shooting was premeditated.

What happened in Las Vegas was not on a whim — that much we know. Paddock had 23 guns with him in his hotel room and managed to get them in there without anyone noticing.

“In this particular case, it is ludicrous to blame the meticulous planning and decision-making that went into committing these offenses on valium,” Pitt said, continuing:

It is just foolish. To blame valium is to ignore and dismiss lots of other information. Despite the fact that we do not know for certain if Paddock took valium before he committed these offenses, even if he did, I can assure you that valium did not make him purchase firearms, valium did not make him reserve a suite at Mandalay Bay, valium did not make him conceal his actions from law enforcement and valium did not force him to pull the trigger.

3. Other factors at play correlate with violence more than mental illness.

According to a ProPublica piece with Jeffrey Swanson, professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, there are other factors people should look at when someone commits a violent act.

“A 2001 study looked specifically at 34 adolescent mass murderers, all male, 70 percent were described as a loner,” Swanson told ProPublica. “61.5 percent had problems with substance abuse. 48 percent had preoccupations with weapons. 43.5 percent had been victims of bullying. Only 23 percent had a documented psychiatric history of any kind ― which means 3 out of 4 did not.”

Swanson said violence should be looked as a communicable disease, and a history of violent victimization early in life, substance abuse and exposure to violence had more to do with people with mental illness acting violently than the mental illness itself.

While people try answer the question of “why,” Kirstie Alley and others should keep in mind the facts and not jump to conclusions. We may never know the reason for these horrendous acts, but that doesn’t mean we should throw something like anti-anxiety medications — which help millions of people each day — under the bus.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “HOME” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/Alan Light

Originally published: October 10, 2017
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