In shootings, mental signs called hazy

Benedict Carey and Anemona Hartocollis / New York Times News Service /


Published Jan 16, 2013 at 04:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

No one but a deeply disturbed individual marches into an elementary school or a movie theater and guns down random, innocent people.

That hard fact drives the public longing for a mental health system that produces clear warning signals and can somehow stop the violence. And it is now fueling a surge in legislative activity in Washington and New York.

But these proposed changes and others like them may backfire and only reveal how broken the system is, experts said.

“Anytime you have one of these tragic case like Newtown, it’s going to expose deficiencies in the mental health system, and provide some opportunity for reform,” said Richard Bonnie, a professor of public policy at the University of Virginia’s law school who led a state commission that overhauled policies after the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings that left 33 people dead. “But you have to be very careful not to overreact.”

New York state legislators Tuesday passed a gun bill that would require therapists to report to the authorities any client thought to be “likely to engage in” violent behavior; under the law, the police would confiscate any weapons the person had.

And in Washington, lawmakers said that President Barack Obama was considering a range of actions as part of a plan to reduce gun violence, including more sharing of records between mental health and law enforcement agencies.

The White House plan to make use of mental health data was still taking shape late Tuesday. But several ideas being discussed — including the reporting provision in the New York gun law — are deeply contentious and transcend political differences.

Some advocates favored the reporting provision as having the potential to prevent a massacre. Among them was D.J. Jaffe, founder of the Mental Illness Policy Org., which pushes for more aggressive treatment policies. Some mass killers “were seen by mental health professionals who did not have to report their illness or that they were becoming dangerous, and they went on to kill,” he said.

Yet many patient advocates and therapists strongly disagreed, saying it would intrude into the doctor-patient relationship in a way that could dissuade troubled people from speaking their minds, and complicate the many judgment calls therapists already have to make.

The New York statute requires doctors and other mental health professionals to report any person who “is likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others.”

Under current ethical guidelines, only involuntary hospitalizations (and direct threats made by patients) are reported to the authorities. These reports then appear on a federal background-check database. The new laws would go further.

“The way I read the new law, it means I have to report voluntary as well as involuntary hospitalizations, as well as many people being treated for suicidal thinking, for instance, as outpatients,” said Paul Appelbaum, director of the Division of Law, Ethics and Psychiatry at Columbia University’s medical school. “That is a much larger group of people than before, and most of whom will never be a serious threat to anyone.”

One fundamental problem with looking for “warning signs” is that it’s more art than science. People with serious mental disorders, while more likely to commit aggressive acts than the average person, account for only about 4 percent of violent crimes over all.

The rate is higher when it comes to rampage or serial killings, closer to 20 percent, according to Michael Stone, a New York forensic psychiatrist who has a database of about 200 mass and serial killers. He has concluded from the records that about 40 were likely to have had paranoid schizophrenia or severe depression or were psychopathic, meaning they were impulsive and remorseless.

“But most mass murders are done by working-class men who’ve been jilted, fired, or otherwise humiliated — and who then undergo a crisis of rage and get out one of the 300 million guns in our country and do their thing,” Stone said.

The sort of young, troubled males who seem to psychiatrists most likely to commit school shootings — identified because they have made credible threats — often don’t qualify for any diagnosis, experts said. They might have elements of paranoia, of deep resentment, or of narcissism, a grandiose self-regard, that are noticeable but do not add up to any specific “disorder” according to strict criteria.

The federal background check database, which is supposed to have updated information from states, has only a patchwork, because of the wide variety of state laws on reporting, experts said. Even if it were entirely up to date, it would not catch the many millions who never see a mental health professional despite deep distress.

Some experts, like Appelbaum, say the Connecticut school tragedy offers an opportunity that only comes once every generation or two: to rethink the entire mental health system. It might include appointing a presidential commission; re-envisioning community mental health care; focusing more on vigilance for problems in young people, and reducing stigma.

“It seems to me an opportunity to step back and rethink what the entire system should look like,” Appelbaum said.