AURORA, CO — At around 12:30 A.M. on July 20, 2012, 24-year-old James Holmes entered the Century 16 multiplex in Aurora, Colorado. The theater was packed to capacity for a midnight screening of the Batman blockbuster, The Dark Knight Rises. Holmes, however, did not show up to watch the movie.
Decked out in tactical military gear from head to toe, James Holmes set off tear-gas grenades and enacted his horrific, meticulously planned “mission.” As gasping patrons fled, Holmes opened fire at them with an array of high-powered firearms.
Numerous survivors later reported initially thinking the commotion was a stunt meant to hype the movie.
Twelve victims died. Among the 70 others who suffered injuries — many of them severe and life threatening — 58 were wounded by gunshots.
Following the massacre, Holmes did not resist arrest. Shortly thereafter, investigators discovered that Holmes had booby-trapped his apartment with explosives and defused them.
To date, Holmes has offered no detailed explanation for the shooting other than pleading not guilty by reason of insanity — a claim that got shot down in court when he was sentenced to 12 consecutive life terms for murder plus 3,318 years for the related crimes.
Since then, numerous analysts have posed a controversial question: Could antidepressants have played a role in turning James Holmes into a mass murderer?
Prior to the slaughter, Holmes, a graduate student of neuroscience, had no criminal record and reportedly exhibited no signs of violent tendencies. He did, however, seek treatment for social anxiety and obsessive thoughts.
At the time of the shooting, he was reportedly taking the SSRI antidepressant Sertraline (the generic name for Zoloft), as well as the benzodiazepine Clonazepam (the generic name for Klonopin). A doctor had prescribed both medications.
Of course, millions of patients take depression-related drugs without violent consequences. According to a 2016 NBC report, one in six Americans regularly take antidepressants and other psychiatric medications.
Still, the specter of homicidal SSRI-blocker side effects continues to linger in the case of James Holmes — as well as those of other mass shooters.
In the 2017 BBC documentary A Prescription for Murder?, for example, Professor David Healy, a psychiatrist who consulted with Holmes’s defense team, “absolutely” states:
“I believe if he hadn’t taken the Sertraline he wouldn’t have murdered anyone.”
While not quite so direct, professor Peter Tyrer, a psychiatrist at Imperial College London, is quoted in the documentary saying:
“You can never be quite certain with a rare side-effect whether it’s linked to a drug or not because it could be related to other things. But it’s happened just too frequently with this class of drug to make it random.”
Naturally, these opinions generated (and continue to generate) copious amounts of heated discussion.
Addressing the documentary’s propositions, Professor Carmine Pariante of King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience endorsed the regulated administration of antidepressants to patients, declaring:
“There is no good evidence that antidepressants increase the risk of violent behavior, and the extremely rare cases that are cited in support of this theory could be explained by chance. Antidepressants are prescribed relatively widely, and so by chance, someone on antidepressants will commit a violent act.”
As more mass shootings have continued to occur, the link between psych meds and the perpetrators continues to be debated. To date, no definitive conclusion has been reached. Tragically, it’s also an issue that seems likely to continue to be relevant.
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Main photo: James Holmes [Arapahoe County Jail]