A Prescription for Stigma

Mental Health Chair, Emma Halahan, discusses Panorama episode, A Prescription for Murder, and why it is sending shockwaves through the mental health community.

Could taking a pill your doctor has prescribed you turn you into a murderer? This is the awful premise that viewers of BBC’s Panorama were presented with as they tuned in to A Prescription for Murder?, an hour long feature into Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants and their potential link to extreme violence.

The episode presided over the case of James Holmes, who walked into a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado and opened fire, killing 12 and injuring 70. Holmes had no previous record of violence but 17 weeks before the killing he began a course of sertraline, an SSRI anti-depressant. Panorama is supported by Professor David Healy, who helped with James’ defence but was never actually asked to provide evidence. Within the story, Healy asks us to consider that if James had never taken an SSRI, he wouldn’t have been driven to mass murder.

The idea sounds ludicrous; even Holmes’ defence team refused to put the idea in front of the jury. But Panorama pushed on. They presented us with what felt largely like circumstantial evidence, conveniently lining up timelines of prescriptions with the purchases of guns and ammunition. What Panorama didn’t seem to consider is James’ mental health, the isolation he was experiencing and the breakdown of his personal relationships. Instead of presenting these as individual reasons someone might be driven into crisis, Panorama chooses to present them as consequences of the SSRI’s.

They presented us with what felt largely like circumstantial evidence, conveniently lining up timelines of prescriptions with the purchases of guns and ammunition.

They brush off the interview with Doctor William Reid, who states categorically that he believes SSRI’s had nothing to do with the demise of James Holmes, in favour of a correlation equals causation approach that completely misses the complexities of any mental health problem. Despite hearing that James suffered through intrusive thoughts of mass murder years before an anti-depressant prescription was handed to him, Panorama concludes that SSRI’s could have played a very real part in the timeline of events.

The real issue with the episode is that many people will see the title and read the synopsis without tuning in to see how little hard evidence was actually presented. When an unbiased news network chooses to air a programme with a largely unfounded conclusion and such a sensationalist headline, we run a real risk of stigmatising the 40 million people who were prescribed SSRI’s in the UK last year alone. Even more dangerously, we risk deterring people from taking anti-depressants all together.

Conversations on twitter confirmed fears of mental health advocates as people spoke out about how if they had seen the programme before being put on anti-depressants, it would have made them think otherwise, maybe even cause them to delay seeking help. The Royal College of Psychiatrists released a statement stating that they were “disappointed with recent media coverage of anti-depressants” and urged people not to stop taking their medications in response to the show.

Scaremongering and sensationalist programming like A Prescription for Murder? sets the reporting of mental health issues back by decades. It also contributes to an underpinning discourse in mainstream media of mistrust towards medicating mental health issues. But the fact is, SSRI anti-depressants are a lifesaving drug for millions of people and it’s time we asked mainstream media to present them as such.