25/07/2017 18:51 BST | Updated 26/07/2017 14:21 BST

BBC Panorama's 'A Prescription For Murder?' Prompts Fears People Will Stop Taking Anti-Depressants

They're urged not to 'worry unnecessarily'.

Mental health campaigners fear a BBC Panorama exploring the potential link between violence and certain anti-depressants could stop people taking their medication.

Panorama will air ‘A Prescription For Murder?’ on Wednesday, which looks at the case of James Holmes, who murdered 12 people in a mass shooting in a cinema in 2012.

He started taking SSRI anti-depressants 17 weeks before the shooting and had no history of violence.

Professor David Healy, a UK psychiatrist who was an adviser to Holmes’s defence team and interviewed him while he was awaiting trial, tells Panorama: “I believe, if he hadn’t taken the sertraline, he wouldn’t have murdered anyone.” 

The promotion for the programme asks: “Did the SSRI anti-depressant he had been prescribed play a part in the killings?”

“Panorama asks if enough is known about this rare side effect, and if doctors are unwittingly prescribing what could be a prescription for murder.”

RJ Sangosti via Getty Images
James Holmes killed 12 people in a mass shooting at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in 2012

The programme also speaks to experts and lawyers who deny the drug played a role.

Prosecutor George Brauchler says: “I don’t think the medications caused these shootings, I think this guy with his evil thoughts, having concluded that he had no other alternative future, with the mental illness, led to this.”

Mind, one of UK’s pre-eminent mental health charities, said they were worried it could lead to people worrying they are at risk and stopping taking the pills.

“We welcome investigations into prescription medication for mental health problems and their side effects but we are concerned that the programme may cause people taking SSRI antidepressants to worry unnecessarily,” the charity said in a statement before the broadcast.

“We are in touch with the programme makers, who are aware of our concerns.”

Stephen Buckley, head of information at Mind, said: “Millions of people take SSRIs and other antidepressants and many find them useful in managing their mental health problems.

“Side effects from medication can be serious but it’s important to recognise that severe side effects such as those explored in this programme are incredibly rare.

“Anyone prescribed medication for a mental health problem should be fully informed about the drug and its side effects so they can make an informed choice about whether it’s the right treatment for them.”

Mental health experts are expected to react more fully once the programme airs.

But Prof Louis Appleby, an expert in suicide and homicide by people with mental health issues, called out the title, a Sunday Times article previewing the programme and promotional material as “already harmful”. 

James Woods, who has been prescribed the same type of SSRI as Holmes, blogged on HuffPost UK accusing Panorama of being “hell bent on sensationalising an extremely sensitive topic which affects people who are already unsure about medication as a result of stigma”.

“This approach by BBC Panorama is already going to be having a detrimental effect on, not only the way individuals battling a mental illness, but also the perceptions of their friends, families and people they come into contact with,” he wrote.

“Given the current information is given on the programme, why wouldn’t anyone rule out that because I’m taking a SSRI, I might suddenly murder my family in the middle of the night?

“Not only is psychosis an extremely rare side effect of various medication, only a tiny percentage of those with a psychotic disorder may threaten violence.”

A BBC spokeswoman said people should judge the programme once it airs.

She added: “It is in the public interest for the BBC to investigate the possible adverse side effects of SSRIs that could potentially affect a minority of people. 

“The programme is a serious and considered work, which includes a range of voices in Psychiatry in both the US and the UK. 

“It is stressed throughout the programme that these drugs are safe for the majority of users and people should not change or stop taking medication without seeking medical advice first.”