Search For Easy Answers in the Wake of Violence Ca
> 2/22/2008 12:09:23 PM

Northern Illinois University shooter Steven Kazmierczak was a diligent but troubled student of sociology. His worry about the interaction between society and the individual can be seen in a paper that he co-authored: "Self-injury in Correctional Settings: 'Pathology' of Prisons or of Prisoners?". This paper brings up the difficult question of whether destructive behavior in prisons is a result of the penal system rather than the individual. That is not the type of question that society wants to ask itself after a terrible tragedy; it is far easier to simplify a murder-suicide so that one manageable factor can carry all of the blame. The media scrambled to supply a simple cause for Kazmierczak's rampage. They quickly turned to the usual suspects: drugs, video games, and guns.

CNN ran the headline "Shooter was taking cocktail of 3 drugs", but it joined the majority of the media in focusing on one drug� Prozac. Kazmierczak's girlfriend set off the speculation by divulging that he stopped taking his prescribed dosage of Prozac approximately three weeks before the shooting. SSRI antidepressants are powerful drugs, and patients and doctors should be mindful of the possible side-effects and withdrawal symptoms. However, singling out Prozac is daft because it lingers in the body for longer than almost any other SSRI. If you stop taking a SSRI with a two day half-life, then the lurching transition may cause abnormal neural functioning as your brain struggles to adjust. But Prozac tapers off slowly, and symptoms are rare and usually mild.�Even if Kazmierczak's case was the rare one in which symptoms are severe, they would only be relatively harmless things like dizziness and irritability, not violence.

A sober warning about SSRI side-effects and withdrawal symptoms may be helpful, but such warnings often cross the line into dangerous panic. Here, almost every news story featured the fact of Prozac usage in their report, but few expounded on the psychopharmacological affect of Prozac withdrawal. What the public is left with are alarmist implications of "Prozac use leads to school shooting!" Hopefully, potential patients will not be swayed by this type of coverage, as it can only harm those in need of treatment. The real lesson to take away is that medication is only part of the battle against mental illness; therapy should always complement medication so that its use can be monitored and perhaps eventually made unnecessary.

The second blame game being played centers around video games. Despite a dearth of clear evidence that video games cause homicidal behavior, this is an accusation that reactionary politicians return to again and again. Sensing the beginning of yet another public outcry against games, attorney Jack Thompson jumped into the fray early with a letter to the university:

Pursuant to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, I hereby request production of copies of all documents that reveal Steven Kazmierczak�s play of violent video games. Not limited to the use of his computer to play Counter-Strike.

The legal ramifications of this shooting may expand past video games to the right to bear arms. After the Virginia Tech shooting, legislation was introduced to restrict the access of the mentally ill to firearms. Measures such as this may save lives, but they unfairly lump all mentally ill together to brand them as dangerous. The public already holds greatly exaggerated views of the violent tendencies of schizophrenics, and blanket laws will only fuel that fear and perhaps spread it to more widespread disorders like depression. It is important to keep in mind that despite all the political posturing, it is impossible to determine what mental illnesses will lead to violence; Kazmierczak was a high-functioning patient with no indication of homicidal tendencies. Are we to prohibit anyone who has ever visited a psychiatrist from owning a gun?

If we cannot dump the blame on medication, video games, or guns, then what can we do? The hard-to-hear answer is that we have to do a better job at understanding and supporting those with mental difficulties, while accepting that we will never prevent 100% of the murders and suicides. Universities are complex environments with a variety of potentially destabilizing pressures, so only robust support systems can stop students from falling through the cracks.

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