Fit to Be Tried
In a fit of incomprehensible anger, a 16-year-old boy kills his 14-year-old girlfriend. The youthful killer has no prior record of either criminal activity or violence. In another incident a muscular man goes into an irrational fit, using his fists and a metal bar to attack the drivers of three other cars, thinking that they are the cause of a traffic delay. In a meaningless display of bravado, another man drives his car straight into a tree. The connection between those incidents is that the perpetrators were all taking anabolic steroid drugs.
Anabolic steroids are often in the news, mainly because of an apparently wide usage of so-called designer steroids, which until recently couldn’t be detected by the usual tests. Steroid use seems to explain in many people’s minds the often out-of-control personality characteristics of professional athletes. Whenever an athlete throws a temper tantrum, people suggest that “the steroids make him crazy.” The supposed psychological effects of steroids are known in the popular parlance as “’roid rage.”
The concept of ’roid rage is fueled by popular media and even physicians. The basis is simple: Men have higher levels of testosterone than women, which explains why men are naturally more aggressive. Others like to point out that women never start wars; only men do (an observation obviously made by those who’ve never gone through a divorce).
Anabolic steroids weren’t always linked to increased aggression. In the 1940s, not long after testosterone was discovered, it was suggested as an effective treatment for depression in men. In fact, a common symptom of hypogonadism, or low testosterone levels in men, is severe depression.
Over the past 20 years, however, the medical pendulum has swung: Testosterone is a drug that induces severe mental disturbances in users. Among the symptoms associated with anabolic steroid use are irritability, aggression, euphoria, grandiose beliefs, hyperactivity and reckless or dangerous behavior. In those who have such mental conditions as depression, psychosis or mania, using steroids either makes the conditions worse or makes them apparent.
Not all the research indicts testosterone or other anabolic steroids. In several studies giving testosterone to men had no effect on any aspect of behavior. Other studies have shown that the angriest of men had lower-than-normal testosterone levels. Then there’s the self-fulfilling-prophecy effect: If you think something will happen, it often will. Doctors who prescribe antidepressants often don’t tell male patients that a side effect of such drugs is impotence. The fear is that putting the suggestion in the patient’s head will yield the side effect.
No one would deny that anabolic steroids have potent effects on muscle. But you have to wonder just how much of the gains experienced by those who use them accrue from a strong belief in the drugs, which may lead to harder training, better nutrition and other factors that result in real muscle gains. The same is true for the mental effects of steroids: Those who think they’re supposed to act crazy while on the drugs often do, then use the drugs as an excuse for their bad behavior. Yet not every athlete who takes steroids shows aggressive tendencies. Much depends on the inherent personality of the user. Angry people may get angrier while taking large doses of anabolic steroids. In fact, the medical literature notes that the higher the doses, the greater the chance of psychological symptoms.
The minimal level of testosterone thought to produce adverse psychological effects is 1,000 milligrams a week, an amount that greatly exceeds the dosages suggested for testosterone-replacement therapy. Symptoms that manifest often abate shortly after the drugs are withdrawn, although they can last up to a month afterward.
Several case studies in the medical literature suggest that steroids are hard not only on users but also on those closest to the users, such as family, wives or girlfriends. Although outright psychosis is rare, irritability is common. Things that would normally not upset you bring on what could be mildly called an overcompensation effect. Some athletes on steroids have beaten their wives or girlfriends to the extent of sending them to the hospital.