A recent study calling into question the long-held theory that depression results from a chemical imbalance in the brain is gaining traction on the far right, with some using it to argue that pharmaceutical companies are plying millions of people with useless antidepressants.
The buzz around the University College London reached a fever pitch this week when right-wing Fox News host Tucker Carlson made it the centerpiece of his show.
“So first we were told that SSRIs would save lives,” Carlson said Monday, referring to the class of drugs known as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, the most common form of antidepressant. “Now we learn they don’t actually work as intended. In fact, the whole idea behind the drug was completely wrong. And yet — and here is the best part — people are ignoring this news, and the drugs are still being prescribed.”
Carlson latched on to a common side effect of SSRIs to bolster his argument that people should abruptly stop taking a potentially lifesaving, mood-altering drug: “If it steals your sex drive, maybe it’s stealing your soul,” Carlson said. (It should go without saying, but if Carlson or anyone else suggests you stop taking a prescribed medication, you should not do so without consulting a doctor.)
Not long after the Uvalde, Texas, school massacre, far-right U.S. Senate candidate Blake Masters in Arizona speculated, without any evidence, that antidepressants were a factor in that and other mass shootings.
Masters said on a podcast in June that a typical shooter, “most of them are on SSRIs, you know, sort of hormone-controlling antidepressant drugs.”
Last week, Matt Walsh, a transphobic, far-right commentator, hailed the new paper’s findings on serotonin in a tweet that was amplified thousands of times.
“This anti-depressant study is huge. Big Pharma has made billions prescribing wonder drugs to treat depression but there was never any solid scientific evidence that the drugs would work. Now we know that the whole thing was built on a myth. Big Pharma’s greatest scam of all time,” he wrote.
In statement on her research that appeared in The Hill, where an article on the study is trending, the paper’s lead author said: “It is always difficult to prove a negative, but I think we can safely say that after a vast amount of research conducted over several decades, there is no convincing evidence that depression is caused by serotonin abnormalities, particularly by lower levels or reduced activity of serotonin.”
Doctors and scientists admit they don’t fully understand how antidepressants work to treat disorders such as anxiety and depression but point to outcomes showing the drugs are nonetheless effective. It’s been thought that SSRIs alleviate the symptoms of depression by helping to flood the brain with serotonin, a naturally occurring chemical in the body that regulates mood and sleep, among other important functions.
The study, published last week in Nature’s Molecular Psychiatry, found no link between serotonin levels and depression, leading some to the conclusion that antidepressants are doing nothing. But critics of that interpretation argue it doesn’t fully capture the complexities of how antidepressants work on the body.
“It is very clear that people suffering from depressive illness do have some abnormality of brain function, even if we do not yet know what this is, and that antidepressants are effective treatments for severe depression,” said David Curtis, a professor at the University College London Genetics Institute who reviewed the findings.
The emerging far-right argument against antidepressants is less about the causes and treatments for people suffering from depression, of which there are millions, than about whipping up a frenzy around Big Pharma — a outgrowth of the COVID-19 anti-vaccination movement and even more recent controversies over parental control in schools.
In a viral video from earlier this month, a TikTok user claimed that his son, a student in Washington state, was prescribed antidepressants at school without his consent — something the school can apparently do legally for teens in that state. It was amplified by Libs of TikTok, where the more extreme comments described the use of SSRIs among children “as a purported left-wing conspiracy to dope up kids,” Rolling Stone reported.
Republicans have long been critical of SSRIs, whose potentially frightening side effects for teens, including increased suicidal ideation and violence, are exceedingly rare, experts say. Rather than focus on limiting access to deadly weapons, fringe members of the GOP have blamed medication and mental illness for devastating acts of violence, including mass shootings.
“When are we going to have an honest conversation about drug abuse, mental illness, and SSRI’s??? And deadly side effects,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) tweeted after the Highland Park, Illinois, shooting on the Fourth of July that left seven dead.
Greene followed up on that idea this week, tweeting: “How many suicides, murders, & mass shootings could be caused by SSRI’s? And why is everyone opposed to asking these questions? What about Covid-19 vaccines?”
Mehmet Oz, the celebrity heart surgeon running for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, has also been skeptical about using drugs to treat depression. In 2012 — well before he entered politics and when he was still a practicing surgeon — Oz said in a clip that antidepressants are used like “painkillers” when they shouldn’t be.
“Folks think that antidepressants make you less depressed. It turns out that when large studies have been done, looking at all the data that’s available, that they’re marginally effective and that usually what gets us out of depression is talking to each other or talking to a professional,” Oz said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the research institute behind the serotonin study. It is University College London, not the University of London.