Last night, BBC's long running 'investigative' documentary programme, Panorama, aired its latest film on BBC One. The show entitled 'A Prescription For Murder' had been met with criticism from many mental health campaigners and professionals. After coming across the information and researching further, I blogged about it for HuffPost UK. The summary released by the BBC before the programme aired focused heavily on SSRI medication, a type of antidepressant, linking it to a US mass shooting and the fact that 40 million prescriptions for the drugs had been given out last year in the UK.
The programme focused heavily on just one, very famous case, providing incredibly detailed analysis of the horrific crime, one of America's deadliest mass shootings. The film used CCTV footage and emotional interviews with victims families and witnesses from the mass murder at a midnight premiere of a Batman film in 2012. It was very uncomfortable to watch knowing what conclusion Panorama was attempting to draw.
James Holmes was arrested and detained alive which is rare for a mass shooter. Speaking on the programme, District Attorney George Brauchler said that as soon as he heard the offender had been caught alive, there would be a court case, and it would focus heavily on mental health. It has been common for media organisations to concentrate on the most negative of cases which involve mental health and this is something charities like Time To Change have been working tirelessly for over five years to eradicate by improving attitudes by talking more openly about mental health.
Panorama used extensive footage from Holme's interviews with the court psychologist to paint a picture of Holmes frame of mind and what he thought about his actions in the lead-up to and on the night of the mass shooting. Holmes stated he had had dark thoughts about killing since being a teenager. His plea of insanity was rejected by the Jury. It was clear that Holmes had a history of intrusive thoughts long before he was introduced to any medication.
Professor David Healy, a psychiatrist and psychopharmacologist, had met Holmes in person before the trial. Professor Healy believes that if Holmes were not prescribed the medication known as Sertraline, a drug which I have taken in the past, he would not have carried out the mass shooting. Healy had met Holmes to look at how the medication could explain his actions. However, Professor was never called as the Court didn't feel the theory was viable and both the prosecution and defence agreed with this conclusion.
The programme highlighted the potential side effects that can come when withdrawing from medicines like SSRIs by stopping them abruptly. It is believed that stopping medications suddenly without advice or supervision could cause adverse side effects in rare cases including mental turmoil and even suicide. I have successfully stopped two SSRI medications successfully without any problems, and I have just finished coming off a high dose of an SNRI drug successfully with some inconvenient withdrawal symptoms, but my mood has maintained, and I have not suffered any emotional or psychological side effects to date.
Panorama looked extensively at the life of Holmes and interviewed his parents who described him as 'normal'. They also looked at his encounters with the university psychiatrist who prescribed Holmes the SSRI, how his dose was increased despite concerns and the lengths the Psychiatrist went to in a bid to ensure Holmes was safe. Panorama also examined other aspects of Holmes' life, who described himself as having a broken brain due to social anxiety, including his the breakdown of his relationship, poor academic work and his extensive plans and theories which led him to commit his horrific crime.
The BBC presenter seemed to conclude the programme by claiming that Panorama felt the SSRI was complicit in causing Holmes to act on his homicidal urges and claimed they found little evidence to suggest he had done any planning before starting Sertraline and plenty to suggest he did all his planning after he began taking his medication. The experts in the film including psychologists and psychiatrists failed to conclude, so it is frustrating and confusing that Panorama managed to draw their own by the end of their documentary.
Whenever I have had issues with my medication or felt suicidal, I have had support from my GP and other health professionals, all my medications are monitored and if I have any problems I can resolve the situation quickly and efficiently. During one stage where I was particularly concerned, I was able to see my GP weekly and take prescriptions of seven days worth of medication until I improved and felt I could deal with things better. There is both schemes and advice in place in UK medicine to ensure safe prescribing especially regarding patients who are suffering from ill mental health.
This was a show aimed at a UK audiences, but the focus was all on a single American case with just one very brief mention of a UK case and a handful of other US cases. America and the UK are vastly different in many ways from gun ownership to our healthcare systems. Ultimately the whole documentary felt like another simplistic attempt to explain a heinous crime and did not take any other possibilities into account about why Holmes did what he did. The documentary didn't appear to liaise with any mental health charities or invite them to take part.
From the moment I heard about 'A Prescription For Murder', I felt the marketing and the details made available before airing alone was sensationalising the myth that mental health and violence are bound when in reality all the data available shows the opposite. During the programme itself, I felt demonised. I feel sorry for anyone who sat through last nights show which takes medication or has a family member who uses a SSRI drug because it was an awful piece of documentary work which I have no doubt will create and inflame stigma around mental health and medication.
If you are taking medication like a SSRI, please do not stop your medication without seeking advice from your GP first. If you experience any worrying symptoms speak to your GP, a pharmacist or call NHS 111 for help and guidance.