Dylann Roof and Psychiatric Drugs

Bottle of Xanax on wooden table surrounded by white pills

“The dog ate my homework.” “The Devil made me do it.” “The psychiatric medication made me do it.” Or, even better, “The lack of psychiatric medication made me do it.”

We’re all familiar with the concept of excuse-making. We know it has reached epic heights when psychiatric drugs are blamed for Dylann Roof’s choice to shoot innocent people inside their church.

I won’t deny that psychiatric drugs, such as antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications (by far the most common ones prescribed), have an impact on the brain — and not always a desirable one. But to suggest that these drugs actually cause someone to plan out a criminal mass-murder is to vastly oversimplify and exaggerate the impact such drugs usually have, and to ignore other factors such as the murderer’s beliefs, viewpoints and ideas about people and life.

I work in the real world of mental health every day, and I have for 27 years. My experience has shown that the overwhelming majority of people, including young people, who take psychiatric medication (actually, 100 percent in my own experience) do not take violent action against themselves or others because of that medication. Such cases, if they exist at all, are highly marginal, unusual or exceptional.

Does this mean that I automatically and always think medication is a good or necessary thing, especially for a young person? No, I don’t. But it’s also true that correlation is not causation. In other words, it’s also true that just because a person (allegedly) taking psychiatric medication (as directed) commits an unspeakable act of mass murder, while the vast majority taking these medications do not, does not prove much of anything.

The problem here is the unwillingness or inability of most people to consider the role of ideas in human behavior and emotions. Ideas have consequences. We all have ideas about people, life, situations or issues. Some of us have ideas about broader topics such as race, morality and the like; others concern ourselves more with the day-to-day dilemmas about jobs, friends, running a business and so forth.

Regardless, ideas are what shape the content of our minds, as well as the nature of our emotions. In daily life, our emotions are the expression of our implicit, underlying ideas about life, people, morality, knowledge and all kinds of profound things. We are all deeper and more insightful than we know. Not always in a good way, as Dylann Roof and others like him remind us.

I will not deny that physiology is a factor with our brains, and therefore with our emotions. There’s plenty of evidence to support this. But the fact that the brain is a variable does not mean that the brain — about which we know nothing, compared to what we will eventually discover through science — is the all-determining cause of everything humans think, do or feel.

I realize that people find it hard to contemplate how a person — particularly a very young person, such as Dylann Roof — could do what he did. That’s what leads them to a hoped-for and obvious explanation. “It was the lack of school funding.” “It’s the absence of a gun ban.” “It was the failure to demand a mental health evaluation of all young people.” “It was the psychiatric drugs.” There has to be a simple, single answer to explain this. It couldn’t have anything to do with the way he thought; that’s too complex.

Does it occur to anyone that Roof might merely be a punk? We have all known such people as children and young adults, and many of us know their adult equivalents. A punk is someone who has the idea that he enjoys a right to treat his feelings as truth, and to impose those feelings on others whenever or however he wishes. Most of the time, punks confine their bullying to friends and family, and perhaps confine it to verbal more than physical assaults. Dylann Roof chose to carry his “punkiness” to an extreme and violent level, but he shares with other bullies his basic idea that his feelings are equivalent to facts and he’s somehow entitled or permitted to impose those ideas and viewpoints on others.

Like a lot of young people, Dylann Roof formed ideas about race, society, morality and people. His conclusions (based on the evidence made available) were awful, mistaken and regrettable. However, many other young people form ideas about race, society, morality and people — ideas they often question or alter later on in life. What made Dylann Roof different is that he felt entitled to impose his ideas, by force, in a way that he knew would get him a lot of attention.

A picture is not a conclusive argument, I realize. However, have you noticed the look of serenity or contentment that Roof displays in some pictures immediately following his capture and arrest? (This is not unusual with such criminals.) This suggests to me that he got something he wanted. Yes, he got attention, but a particular kind of attention, since there were many other ways to gain attention beyond what he did. Just one theory: He took a short-cut to being famous, perhaps because he had an idea that fame or visibility in the eyes of others — however it’s attained — is the most valuable thing he could acquire. Yes, it’s just a theory. But it’s a theory based on his ideas, attitudes and thinking, not just what medication he may or may not have been taking.

The fact of the matter is that psychiatric medication sometimes helps, and it sometimes does not. Usually, physicians prescribe such medication in such conservative and minimal doses (gradually increasing them over time, making sure to monitor emotional and behavioral effects, especially in young people) that it isn’t clear whether it’s even helping or making any kind of a difference, to the patient him- or herself. I have those conversations with frustrated people all the time.

I don’t mean to discourage people from questioning the role psychiatric medication has on young people, particularly in cases like this. However, it’s a vast oversimplification to claim, or even hypothesize, that “psychiatric medication leads people to commit acts of violence.” You might have a handful of people who do horrendous things who happened to have been on medication. But what about the vast majority who are on psychiatric medication and would never do such things? How do we explain them? The principles of science, not to mention even common sense, require us to rule out other possible variables and explanations.

That’s why in trying to figure out Dylann Roof, from the facts available, I want to know first and foremost what he thought and believed, and why he thought and believed it. He was a violent collectivist/racist who took his ideas seriously. He was unwilling to wait to bring them to implementation. He was unwilling to leave others free to think what they believe (e.g. nonracist ideas), even if it didn’t square with his own views. Ideas have consequences, and if someone does something insane or “imbalanced,” you’d better believe that something in their thinking, premises or basic assumptions had a lot to do with it. It’s not always about race, religion or politics, but it often is, and it surely involves ideas about something.

It’s ironic. On the one hand, many of us call for mental health evaluations and psychiatric consultations mandated by the government to ensure people like Dylann Roof can be “flagged” before they erupt. On the other hand, we blame psychiatry and psychology for failing to properly do their job with such people. Which is it?

Maybe the real problem here is that we underestimate the power of free will, and the profound impact of ideas on emotions and behaviors. Not all the medicine in the world could have created — or prevented — in Dylann Roof the sense of entitlement and emotionalism that led him to do what he did. He was unusual and different in this respect … and not in a good way.



Be sure to “friend” Dr. Hurd on Facebook. Search under “Michael  Hurd” (Rehoboth Beach DE). Get up-to-the-minute postings, recommended articles and links, and engage in back-and-forth discussion with Dr. Hurd on topics of interest. Also follow Dr. Hurd on Twitter at @MichaelJHurd1