In the news today, it was noted that the alleged psychiatrist of the alleged Aurora shooter had allegedly been concerned about him enough to report him to the University's "threat assessment team." He reportedly withdrew from the university before the team could convene. We don't know any details about what he may have said to the psychiatrist, or what the threshold is for notifying their threat assessment team. Presumably (and I don't know this for sure, but I'll assume) he would have been hospitalized if there was an imminent risk of danger.
Our laws are pretty clear, and I will only talk about Maryland, because I know nothing about the laws in other states. If a patient makes a threat to a psychiatrist and there is a specific named victim, the psychiatrist is obligated to do one of three things: warn the victim, tell the police, or hospitalize the patient. "I'm going to kill my girlfriend" qualifies. "I feel like hurting people when they're rude to me" does not. But wait, if a psychiatrist has reason to believe that a patient is at risk of committing an imminent act that endangers himself or others, and the patient has a mental disorder, the psychiatrist may involuntarily certify him to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation and treatment. In the majority of cases, this occurs in the setting of a suicidal threat or after a suicide attempt. It's much rarer that we see homicidal people in psychiatric settings, perhaps because depressed people become suicidal and seek care, while homicide more often is the result of anger or other motives (for example, in the course of a robbery) and not related to mental illness. Mass murders in public settings are extremely rare events -- as opposed to suicide which is a common event, or single murders linked to drugs or alcohol which are also fairly common, at least where we live. We know very little about what motivates mass murderers, and because they are so rare, they do not represent a single phenomena -- each case may have a very different motive and/or relationship to mental illness.
When something bad happens, and there were warning signs, people say "something should have been done." If a psychiatrist has been involved, there certainly may be the thought that the psychiatrist should have prevented this. The shooter involved in the Virginia Tech shooting had been hospitalized, years before the Va Tech incident, but he did not continue in treatment. In many states, patients whose mental illness leads them to legal difficulties are subject to outpatient commitment.
We don't know what transpired in Aurora, but if a student in Maryland made a vague threat (and vague threats do keep psychiatrists awake at night) and then left the institution, or simply didn't return to treatment, there is little that can be done. If I'm worried about someone's safety, I like to check in with the family: Are they worried? Are they aware that the patient owns weapons -- if that's what I've been told. I like them to at least be aware that I'm concerned, to know how to find me, and to know what to do if there is a emergency. If there's no family, or if I don't know how to reach them, then this isn't an option.
Our present laws don't allow us to involuntarily hospitalize people based on vague threats, or shrinky suspicions, and they shouldn't: we don't want to be a society that institutionalizes everyone who seems a little weird or is a loner. ( I don't even think we want a society where everyone has to have their shoes scanned to get on a plane, but nobody asked me. ) We're not terribly good at predicting violence -- people get discharged who then commit violent acts, and people get committed who would not have acted on their violent thoughts. We're psychiatrists, not fortune tellers.
Are tragic acts of violence a failure of the system, or are they an unpredictable, fact of life where any attempt to prevent such acts would result in an over-correction and too many people would end up having their civil rights violated? Is there some other possible solution -- something more or different that could be done without risking the civil liberties of those who will never harm anyone? Should we be completely re-thinking this, outside the box of hospitalization/compelled care/ and commitment? Any ideas?
Oh, wait -- before you use this as your gun-control soap box -- the alleged Aurora shooter is not the right poster child, even without guns, his apartment full of explosives could have resulted in a horrible tragedy without guns. (I'm in favor of tighter gun regulation, and I don't believe it's okay to buy or sell thousands of rounds of ammunition over the internet, but that's a different issue.)
Okay, Clink can tell me why I shouldn't have written this blog post now. And Roy, for you, I've started balancing my dashes -- I know how difficult it is for you when I don't. Thanks to Tigermom for the graphic