Thinking about Newtown, Connecticut

Today we have a guest post from Dr. James Marcum , a board-certified cardiologist and author of the new book Medicines that Kill (available February 2013). Dr. Marcum provides his perspective on the recent discussions of gun control and mental health. Learn more about Dr. Marcum’s ministry HeartWise here .

Now that I have had some time to reflect on the tragedy that claimed twenty-six young lives, I am not alone in wondering what happened. Why did twenty-year-old Adam Lanza take the lives of so many?

The incident has triggered increased calls for stricter gun control. After all, it is hard to kill without a weapon. Others want more guns and guards at schools. Legislation recently introduced in Tennessee has suggested that teachers be permitted to carry firearms.

Estimates are that 5 percent of the population owns 50 percent of the guns. Gun use accounted for thirty-two thousand homicides in the United States last year. Is access to guns the only problem?

Many claim that the root of the problem lies with the mental health of the population and the medications used to treat mental illnesses.

In 1989, Patrick Purdy, who was taking Thorazine and Amitriptyline, killed five people and wounded thirty in Stockton, California. In 1998, Kipland “Kip” Kinkel killed his parents and two high school students and wounded twenty-five others. He had been prescribed the antidepressant Prozac. In 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed twelve and wounded 26 in Littleton, Colorado. Harris had been taking Luvox at the time. Klebold’s records are currently sealed. In 2005, Jeff Weise was taking Prozac when he killed his grandfather, his grandfather’s companion, and seven others in Red Lake, Minnesota, and wounded five more. Steven Kazmierczak of DeKalb, Illinois, who reportedly had recently stopped taking medication, killed five and wounded twenty-seven at Northern Illinois University in 2008. We do not know for sure what medication Adam Lanza may have been taking, but many have suggested that he, too, was on medication that alters the brain’s chemistry.

Psychiatrist David Healy, author of Pharmageddon , states, “Violence and other potentially criminal behavior caused by prescription drugs are medicine’s best kept secret.” Many of the medications used to treat mental illness have black box labels warning of the correlation between these medications and violent behavior. Prescription medications seem to be a contributing factor.

Why do we, as a society, need these medications in the first place? Are they treating the cause of a problem or merely a symptom of it? Why is our mental health so poor? Is the steady stream of violence seen in the media damaging the developing brain? Are the many hours spent on gaming systems where the entire goal is to kill as many people as possible numbing people’s senses? Are the lyrics heard in the latest rap hit contributing to the problem? Can we trace it to poor nutrition, changing societal values, or lack of good parenting? Is the problem related to the use of alcohol, illicit drugs, painkillers? Or is it the result of a combination of factors?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in any given year, one in four people age eighteen or older suffer from a diagnosed mental disorder. This accounts only for those that have been diagnosed. In Europe, 27 percent suffer from mental disorders. The statistics for mental illness are similar in America and Europe, and yet the number of gun-related homicides is much higher in the US than in Europe or in other developed countries. In Japan there is mental illness but few gun-related deaths.

Those who are part of the political right tend to say the problem is attributable to mental illness and a lack of morals. Members of the political left say tend to say we have too many guns. No one seems to be happy with a moderate view on the issue, but when we think about Newtown, we appear to see mental health problems, possibly dangerous drugs treating symptoms, and too many guns. In order to find solutions, we must continue to seek to understand the problem. What we have is a societal problem, and we must put politics aside to address it.

James L. Marcum, board-certified cardiologist practicing with Chattanooga Heart Institute, has been named by USA Today as one of the most influential physicians in his field. He is the author of The Ultimate Prescription as well as an in-demand speaker for his role as the director of Heartwise Ministries. Currently, his radio program, Heartwise, airs on more than 500 radio stations across the nation. Dr. Marcum, speaker/director of HeartWise Ministries, hosts the health programs “Heart of Health” and “BibleRX” which can be seen on secular and Christian television. He is married to Sonya and has two children, Kelli and Jake. He enjoys music and outdoor activities.