I can barely stand to write a sentence like this: Last week, a nine-year-old girl hanged herself. Her name was Maddie Whittsett. She was in fourth grade.
Her parents say that Maddie came home from school that day in fine spirits, seemingly excited about a trip to Chick-fil-A. But when Maddie’s mother went to her room to tell her it was time to go, she found the child hanging in the closet. One cannot even begin to contemplate the horror of such a scene.
It turns out Maddie was often bullied in school. She had been subjected to an especially vicious round of bullying on that particular day, according to one of her friends. No doubt, this fact likely has something to do with the suicide. But her family suspects that something else might have also played a role: ADHD medication. Maddie’s stepfather reports that she had just recently begun taking a new drug for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. One of the drug’s listed side effects is “suicidal thoughts.”
We will never know for sure what was going on inside Maddie’s mind that day, but was it a coincidence that she started taking medicine that causes suicidal thoughts right before she committed suicide? Her parents don’t think so, and who can argue with them? The suicide of a young child certainly seems, intuitively, like something that must be caused by an outside force, a foreign agent of some kind. Children that age shouldn’t have the idea of suicide anywhere on their radar. They shouldn’t even know what it is. Of course it is a terrible shock for anyone to take their own life. But a nine-year-old? How is such a thing possible?
Sadly, stories like Maddie’s are much more common than they used to be. Studies show that the number of children attempting or contemplating suicide has doubled in the past decade. This is a multi-faceted phenomenon that cannot be blamed on any single one factor. I think we make a mistake, however, when we chalk it up to bullying and barely stop to consider what the other factors might be. Kids have always been bullied. They have not always committed suicide at a rate as high a this. Something else is going on here.
As the suicide rate among children has increased exponentially, so has the number of children prescribed psychiatric drugs. There are currently over 7 million kids on some kind of psychotropic medication, and over half of them are being treated for ADHD. Correlation does not prove causation, but isn’t there enough correlation here to make us exceedingly wary about dosing kids with this stuff? There’s a reason why the drug companies list “suicidal thoughts” as a side effect. There’s a reason why health officials in Canada have mandated that the suicide warnings be stronger and clearer.
Defenders of these drugs will claim that we can’t draw a straightforward connection between psychotropic meds and violent or suicidal behavior. That’s true. We know the drugs can leave a lasting mark on the developing brains of children, but we don’t know exactly what sort of mark it might leave, or how long it will last, or how it might manifest itself. As pediatric psychologist Ronald Brown says, “There’s more use of psychotropic medication with children than there is research data on it.” But the lack of data is reason enough to refrain from giving pills to our kids. If we don’t fully understand what it might do to a child, how it might interact with his brain, how it might change him, how it might hurt or help him, then the only ethical and prudent course is one of extreme caution.
Extreme caution is not what we’re seeing from the drug companies and the medical establishment. They keep churning out the pills, shoving them down the throats of our children, all while issuing breezy assurances that the medicine is perfectly safe. Safe? It might make a fourth grader consider suicide — but it’s safe? It might alter her personality, make her angry, make her aggressive, make her hallucinate — but it’s safe? I might argue that any drug that could put thoughts into a child’s head is, by definition, unsafe. Especially because a thought is a function of the mind, of consciousness, and nobody on Earth really knows how exactly consciousness relates to the brain. Nobody knows exactly how chemical reactions in the brain could produce something like a thought. Doctors and drug companies are playing in an arena they don’t fully understand.
We should note that childhood suicide is just one of the awful and increasingly common phenomena that could be linked to psychiatric drugs. Mass shooting is another. Dozens of violent attacks in schools have been carried out by kids on, or withdrawing from, psychiatric drugs. And not just kids. The Las Vegas shooter was on anxiety medicine. The Colorado theater shooter was on anti-depressants. The Charlston shooter was known to take a drug called Suboxone. The Virginia Tech shooter was on psychiatric drugs. The list goes on.
Can prescription meds be solely blamed for any of these attacks? Of course not. But I don’t think it’s entirely incidental that so many mass shooters have been on psychotropic drugs. And I don’t think it’s incidental that Maddie Whittsett committed suicide while taking a drug that might cause a child to contemplate suicide. There is a connection here, a very obvious connection. And the drug companies know it. And so do the doctors. And it’s time we start holding them accountable.