“If you have teenage kids in Washington state, watch this video,” Eli Holt’s video begins. In it, Holt, who goes by the handle @mr.notnew, alleges that he received a call from a counselor at a high school in Snohomish, Washington, who said that his 15-year-old child (actually his nephew for whom he has custody, according to a follow-up video) did not pick up his antidepressants at school. This was news to Holt, who did not know that his child had been prescribed this medication, or that he had been depressed to begin with. Holt went on to say that he did some research and found out that it was “100-percent legal” for students in Washington state public high schools to be prescribed antidepressants by school counselors without parental consent.

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The video, which was posted at the end of June, went viral, racking up hundreds of thousands of views on Holt’s account and ultimately being picked up by media outlets like the Daily Dot and the Daily Mail and the far-right Twitter account Libs of TikTok; it also circulated widely in many far-right channels on the encrypted messaging app Telegram. Many of the comments focused on the supposed dangers and harms of antidepressants like SSRIs, with some on the more extreme end of the spectrum focusing on a purported left-wing conspiracy to dope up kids (“this is MK Ultra grooming,” one commenter wrote, referencing a 1950s-1970s CIA program that tested drugs on unsuspecting citizens).

But for the most part, it was clear that the video was going viral not because people were invested in the story of one parent in Snohomish, Washington, but because it signaled a new frontier in the right’s culture wars. Many of the comments framed Holt’s video as a parental-rights issue and an egregious example of overstepping school-parent boundaries, similar to the right-wing fracas over pro-LGBTQ children’s books being recommended as part of a Pizza Hut-sponsored literacy initiative earlier this year. This was a framing Holt himself, who did not respond to multiple calls and emails requesting comment, seemed to endorse: “If they’re giving a child [in your home] a prescription you should know. Period,” he said in one of about two or three follow-up videos he posted (many of which are, bizarrely, also hashtagged #RoeVWade).

In the video, Holt did not specify which school his nephew attends, though in a comment he specified it was Snohomish High School. He is correct that in Washington State, it is indeed legal for minors between 13 and 18 to seek mental health care without parental consent. When reached for comment, Kristin Foley, the communications director for the Snohomish School District, told Rolling Stone that via a pilot program with the Snohomish County Human Services, Behavioral Health and Veterans Division, students would technically be able to receive mental health care treatment without parental consent, including meeting with cognitive behavioral therapists employed by that department. Snohomish High School is one of the two schools running that pilot program, per Snohomish County Human Services. (Foley declined to comment on whether Holt was a parent in the school district or the specific details of his claim that his child had been prescribed meds without his consent, stating, “all student-specific educational record and health information is protected and cannot be released.”)

But when it comes to actually prescribing or administering medication, Foley said the district simply did not have the authority to do so. “The school district does not administer medication without parent/guardian consent. Medication in our schools is administered by our school nurses” following a parent signing a consent form, which Foley attached for Rolling Stone‘s review. Mary Jane Brell-Vujovic, the director of the Snohomish County Human Services, Behavioral Health and Veterans Division, also confirmed that the program it partners with to administer mental health services “does not prescribe medication.”

#Washington #school #roevwade

♬ original sound – Eli Holt

Regardless of whether the actual claims put forth in Holt’s video were true, it was primed to go viral in certain social media due to a burgeoning anti-antidepressant sentiment percolating in the media in recent weeks, as discussed on the most recent episode of Rolling Stone’s podcast on internet news and culture, Don’t Let This Flop. While that sentiment is not necessarily exclusive to right-wing media, as evidenced by an extensive and highly controversial reported essay on the supposed dangers of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) published in The Nation earlier this year, it has been pushed primarily in the right-wing media ecosystem, particularly by such GOP figureheads as Tucker Carlson and Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene. This narrative reached its apex following the Highland Park mass shooting on July 4th weekend, in which six people, including the parents of a 2-year-old toddler later found wandering the streets, were killed during a parade.

In a broadcast the following day, Carlson blamed the Highland Park shooting on everything but actual guns, including “social media, porn, and video games” and antidepressants. In an extensive rant, he claimed that “crackpots posing as ‘counselors’” are forcing American children to take ‘psychotropic drugs,’” claiming “a lot of young men in America are going nuts” and that “a shockingly large number” of them have been prescribed SSRIs. Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene also took to Twitter last week to make similar claims, writing, “When are we going to have an honest conversation about drug abuse, mental illness, and SSRI’s … and deadly side effects. Are we really going to keep pretending? Or covering for Big Pharma? Because I’m absolutely done with the political plays on this.” (There is no evidence that the alleged Highland Park shooter was prescribed SSRIs or taking any legal or illegal drugs, for that matter.)

The chestnut that violence or aggression may be a potential side effect of taking SSRIs is a long-cherished one on the right, despite the fact that there is virtually no basis for it. “Antidepressants do not cause a nonviolent person to become violent,” says Dr. Anita Everett, Director of SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services. Within the first few weeks of taking an antidepressant, “you can see some increase in irritability. I have certainly seen that, though it tends to be transient,” says prescribing psychologist David Shearer, PhD, MSCP, adding that most prescribing physicians will discontinue medication if increased irritation emerges as an early side effect. But not only does it tend to get better over time, “there’s a huge gap between irritability and aggression. When I speak of irritability it’s responding more strongly to frustration than we normally would. I haven’t seen any frank increase in outright hostility, rage, or aggression with the use of antidepressants I have prescribed.”

It’s true that, like all medications, there are potential side effects to many antidepressants, which typically affect things like sleep or a change in sexual functioning, says Shearer. But these side effects are “very tolerable” and usually short-lived, he says. Another, more serious, albeit rarer, potential side effect to some SSRIs is increased suicidal ideation, says Dr. Derek Philips, past president of Division 55 of APA the Society for Prescribing Psychology. But even in those rare cases, “they are more likely to hurt themselves than other people,” he say.

Regardless of the fact that antidepressants have no known link to increased violence or aggression, the idea that there is a causal relationship has been a common theme in the right-wing media on Fox News and outlets like InfoWars for years, particularly following high-profile mass shootings, according to the watchdog group Media Matters for America. After the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting in 2018, for instance, right-wing radio host Tammy Bruce blamed gun violence on antidepressants, saying on Fox and Friends that “they’re psychotropics. They affect the mind. We know, of course, that how adults respond to these drugs are different than how young people do.” (A 2016 state protective services report following an unrelated violent incident indicated that that shooter was receiving mental health services and medication, but it’s unclear whether he was being treated at the time of the shooting.) NRA president Dana Loesch also repeated that talking point after another, 2019 school shooting in Colorado, stating, “Is it psychotropic drugs? We know a couple of things that one of the individuals apparently, according to reports in law enforcement, had been abusing illegal drugs and was in therapy. If we’re gonna discuss warning signs, how about that?”

In the wake of tragedies like the Highland Park shooting and the Uvalde elementary school shooting, there’s been a resurgence in the national conversation over gun control, leading to the right-wing media scrambling to try to move focus toward other issues, says Emerson T. Brooking, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which studies disinformation. “In the absence of an easy narrative or rationale, some media organizations fall into old and familiar frames,” he says. “In the case of Fox News, it is a rekindled obsession with antidepressants.”

The fact that the Highland Park shooter did not have any clear or consistent political motives has puzzled many trying to deduce the true meaning of the attack. But pointing the finger at a traditional shibboleth like antidepressants, regardless of whether or not there is any evidence to support it, is an easy way to move the conversation forward without actually adding anything substantive to it, says Brooking. “The true story of the [Highland Park] attack remains unsolved and hence unsettling. But an old fashioned moral panic is something that folks can get behind.”

Don’t Let This Flop is released Wednesdays on all audio streaming platforms, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, Stitcher and more.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also reach out to the Crisis Text Line, a free, 24/7 confidential text messaging service that provides support to people in crisis when they text 741741. 

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