Over the weekend, NRA President, former United States Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel and convicted felon Oliver North assigned a portion of the blame for the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School in Galveston, Texas — or mass shooting generally, it was a bit hard to tell — to medications used to treat Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder. The comment naturally stirred up some ire, especially in light of the fact that murderer Dimitrios Pagourtzis is not known to have been diagnosed with any mental conditions, but it did not present a new idea. The notion that overmedicated boys commit acts of violence as some sort of reaction to their own victimhood has long been popular with hardliners on the right.
The fact that this theory has no basis in reality has not stopped people like Oliver North from speculating in public, distracting from potential solutions involving gun control or programmatic approaches to violence prevention.
The idea that there’s a link between psychiatric medications, like those used to treat ADHD and school shootings have been floating around right-wing media since the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary in 2012. And there’s a certain kind of logic to the argument. Proponents of the idea say it’s not the easy access to guns that’s to blame for all of the killings. After all, there have always been guns around. What has changed is the diagnosis of mental disorders in boys and the associated medications to treat them.
To be fair, statistics on changing ADHD diagnosis in young men are eye-opening. According to the National Child Health Survey, there was a 42% increase in the diagnoses of ADHD in children aged 4 to 17-year-old between the 2003 and 2011 when the last statistics were available. What’s more, young men are likely to be diagnosed with ADHD at about twice the rate as girls. In terms of treatment for ADHD, about 62 percent of children with ADHD are being treated with psychiatric medications like Ritalin.
If you were to isolate those numbers and graph them next to the supposed increase in school shootings, you could easily draw a correlation between ADHD medications and young men killing classmates with guns (well, not easily, it’s not a clean looking line graph). But, importantly, correlation is not causation and there really is not any evidence to suggest that either ADHD or drugs used to treat it are a source of malice. In fact, when you take a broad look at the data, the theory really starts to fall apart.
First, it’s important to consider the fact that ADHD is not just a boy’s issue. In fact, most researchers believe girls are as much at risk for ADHD as boy.s However, they remain underdiagnosed because they respond to social pressure to conform and remain quieter. The vast, vast, vast majority of school shooters are male so that ratio alone throws off the Ritalin leads to homicide theory.
But what about a more direct connection. Could Ritalin trigger violent ideation or action? In fact, Ritalin, and similar medications simply increase two key brain chemicals central to thinking, concentration, and impulse control: dopamine and norepinephrine. Is it a stimulant? Yes. Is it like methamphetamine which can cause homicidal delusions in addicts? Not at all. Again, Ritalin aids in impulse control.
And finally, we have to consider that rates of ADHD and it’s subsequent treatment are not, by any means, unique to America. In fact, a 2003 study found that “there is no convincing difference between the prevalence of this disorder in the USA and most other countries or cultures.” Given that, wouldn’t children get shot (or stabbed) in other countries at a similar rate? Presumably, they would. They don’t.
Let’s also not forget that, at least in the case of the shooter at Sante Fe High School in Texas, whom Oliver North was commenting on, there are no reports that he was taking any type of psychiatric medication.
So, it is wildly unlikely that psychiatric medications are causing young men to become violent. However, when violent young men have easy access to guns, it becomes particularly easy to kill. And the common thread for all of the school shooting in the United States is that the perpetrators used firearms.