Yesterday, in the wake of the tragic Santa Fe school shooting on Friday, the National Rifle Association's (NRA) new president, Oliver North, told Fox News Sunday that Ritalin is to blame for mass shootings. North said that the problem Americans should be focused on right now is not the Second Amendment, but rather the fact that children grow up "steeped in a culture of violence," and have "been drugged in many cases."
North singled out Ritalin, a drug used to treat attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). "If you look at what has happened to young people, many of these young boys have been on Ritalin since they were in kindergarten," he said, referring to the perpetrators of violence. "Now I’m certainly not a doctor — I’m a Marine — but I can see those kinds of things happening and endangering those two gals."
Dimitrios Pagourtzis, the 17-year-old shooter who took the lives of 10 people, was not on any specific medication, according to his attorney, and investigators have not indicated that he was, either. Just a couple weeks ago, North called the Parkland activists "terrorists," so this latest comment comes as no surprise. But he's not the only person to make this assumption, and there are dozens of sketchy propaganda websites that promote the idea that virtually all shooters were on medications. So, clearly it bears repeating that taking psychiatric drugs does not cause children or teenagers to kill people.
There's no reason to believe that a medication that relieved their symptoms somehow also caused them to become violent.
Peter Langman, PhD, clinical psychologist, author of Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters
"Based on my research into dozens of school shooters, I am not seeing the link between psychiatric medication and their acts of violence," says Peter Langman, PhD, clinical psychologist, author of Why Kids Kill: Inside the Minds of School Shooters, and spokesperson for the American Psychological Association (APA). "Even when there have been some who have been taking medication at the time of their attack, that doesn't mean medication caused an attack," he said.
There are millions of people who take Ritalin, but "the notion that it's responsible for mass homicide is absurd," says Joel A. Dvoskin, PhD, a clinical and forensic psychologist who studies treatment of people with serious mental illness and co-occurring substance use disorders. "There's no evidence whatsoever to support that."
In fact, there's evidence that as psychiatric medication use goes up, violence goes down. Between 1990 and 2007, there was a dramatic increase in the number of people taking psychiatric medications, but there was a decrease in violence. For youth between ages 10 and 24 especially, the number of people taking psychiatric medications during that timeframe increased four-fold, but there was a 40% decrease in the male homicide rate and a 51% decrease in the female homicide rate. In many cases, psychiatric drugs help people feel better, Dr. Langman says. "There's no reason to believe that a medication that relieved their symptoms somehow also caused them to become violent," he says.
Of all psychiatric medications, why did North pin this on Ritalin? Ritalin, aka methylphenidate, works by "fine-tuning" neurons in the prefrontal cortex, which is the brain region involved in attention, decision-making and impulse control. It's unclear exactly why North called it out, but it's common for people to go after Ritalin or selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), simply because they are well-known and frequently prescribed, Dr. Langman says. "There's a lot of misinformation out there, and for some people it appears to be a compelling argument," he says.
Ultimately, this argument is not about Ritalin at all — this type of talk is only a distraction. North and the NRA seem to be "seizing on any shiny object that distracts from the conversation that they don’t want to have," Dr. Dvoskin says. "It's much more important that we talk about how to live more safely with all these guns."