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BBC Panorama- A prescription for sensationalism?

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I have now been on a mixture of medications, including various common SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) for 2 and a half years in order to help manage my mental illness. I owe a lot to medication.

Taking a keen interest in how these drugs function and their side effects, I was struck by the latest BBC Panorama investigation. I was acutely aware of the bad taste which the name of the programme – “A Prescription for Murder?” – left in my mouth.

The documentary creates a timeline in the weeks leading up to a mass shooting carried out by James Holmes in a US cinema. It attempts to make a case for the involvement of SSRIs in triggering this incident. I watched the show with a curious reluctance and by the end I was compelled to believe that antidepressants did play a part in the case.

Gaps in proper healthcare support and reluctance to hospitalise sick patients clearly can lead to numerous varieties of tragedies…

It would be wrong to say that the programme doesn’t raise some important points. Gaps in proper healthcare support and reluctance to hospitalise sick patients clearly can lead to numerous varieties of tragedies. However, the focus on murder and even mass murder was utterly misguided.

Antidepressants do carry with them certain dangers. I still thoroughly read through the information leaflet of every new antidepressant I am prescribed, paying particular notice to the possible side effects; my current medication lists in excess of 60. Honestly, it’s a scary list of anything from mild fatigue to an irregular heartbeat. I have certainly fallen victim to a particular SSRI which left me feeling suicidal instead of helping me.

However with proper destigmatised acceptance of my medication amongst friends and family, I had access to almost 24/7 support and I quickly returned to my doctor to be taken off of the drugs. This is the sort of support which Holmes seemingly lacked. Oversight from his psychiatrist, a lack of close friends and no nearby family clearly isolated Holmes.

It was however very wrong to make murder the central focus of this documentary…

It was however very wrong to make murder the central focus of this documentary. Personally, I believe that the key issue which the documentary dealt with was the rare side effect of psychosis. My medication lists the uncommon and rare side effects of “strange thinking”, “detachment” and “untypical wild behaviour”. All of these seem present in the case of Holmes and some in others featured.

They are rare side effects, but they are a possibility. However, with appropriate medical support and monitoring, it would arguably be next to impossible for a patient to descend to the point at which Holmes was when he committed the tragic shooting.

The subsequent effect of this documentary is fear, both from those who take a form of SSRI and from those who do not. Thankfully Panorama did include warnings not to discontinue use of medication without consulting a doctor first. Nonetheless, the focus on murder painted a graphic picture of SSRIs turning unsuspecting patients into crazed killers. This simply isn’t true. It is a manipulation of the actual root side effects which sensationalises them and stigmatises the medication further.

Simply put, SSRIs not only saved my life but improved it…

Many people I have met since being open about my own experience of mental health services and treatment have been reluctant to use medication. This is often out of fear or lack of understanding, perpetuated by such media as “A Prescription For Murder?”. Instead of contributing to an important conversation, this documentary deviates down a misguided avenue and does more to increase stigma than accurately educate.

It is imperative that physicians and patients, as well as friends and family, are aware of the range of side effects caused by any psychiatric medication. They should be prescribed with caution and care, but that doesn’t mean they are as terrifying or dangerous as this documentary would have you believe. Simply put, SSRIs not only saved my life but improved it.

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