Sunday, May 25, 2014

Rampage Killing - The Public Health Approach Is Still Ignored

I was watching the news this morning on the latest rampage killing.  This news coverage features numerous replays of a YouTube video posted by the killer about twenty minutes before he started shooting.  I listened to an expert, (at least as much of an expert as you can be) talk about his approach to the problem.  He talked about the limitations of the post event "psychoanalysis" of the  killer and how a more functional approach would be to harden targets and warn the victims.  He talked about the false positive rate of how most people who threaten or post videos like this do not carry out the threatened violence making it impossible to detain all the people making the threats.  He said that it may be useful to talk to people with these problems but the psychology of this individual not only made that impossible, but even talking with mental health professionals was not likely to help him.

I had just finished reading the latest Psychiatric Annals.  This month's topic was Psychotic Rampage Killers.  Three of the four articles were written by C. Ray Lake, MD,  and the fourth by James l. Knoll, MD and J. Reid Meloy, PhD.  Dr. Lake also had an opinion piece on why mass murder diagnoses were justification for breaking the Goldwater Rule specifically the part ".... it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement."  He points out that this rule is currently routinely broken with speculative diagnoses about psychotic mass killers.  He also suggests that the correct diagnosis is still an open question.  He also points out that the inadequate care of individuals with psychosis is an issue and that has been one of the themes of this blog.

Lake's main contention is that Psychotic Rampage Killers are really bipolar and manic and do not have schizophrenia.  He briefly reviews some of the facts including that even though a small percentage of killers (<10%) are psychotic, there are a distinct number of correlates that cause them to differ from non-psychotic killers most notably a motivation that is delusional in nature, the fact that they are always caught (as opposed to 33% of non-psychotic killers never being caught), warnings  and plans prior to the act are common, and half attempt or commit suicide.  The psychotic killer basically focuses on the event as a final stage and does not plan to escape or benefit from the event.  He makes the point that all of the psychotic killers realize that what they are doing is illegal and that can exclude an insanity defense if they survive.  I think this is also a common misconception on the part of the public.  People who are psychotic can carry out detailed plans that are consistent with the logic of their psychosis.  It certainly does not mean that they are rational.  He briefly reviews the issue of violence and psychosis and takes on the political issue that "violence perpetrated by mentally ill is no greater than violence carried out by the non-mentally ill population."  This has always been a statistical fallacy balancing the violence by a subgroup of the mentally ill against the violence of high risk members in the general population.  By now there should be no doubt that some people with severe mental illness have a much higher rate of violence than the general population.   Further there are known diagnostic features within that subgroup that are associated with the increased risk of violence including alcohol and drug addiction, paranoia, command hallucinations, and a lack of treatment.

Lake's initial discussion of prevention points out that gun legislation is not likely to be a solution because of existing biases by legislators in this area to do nothing despite the fact that most rampage killer use firearms and 75% of them were legally acquired.  Civil commitment laws were described as "limited by our sensitivity to personal freedoms."  In my experience, it comes down to the courts involved and the administrative element through the involved counties.  I have been personally involved in thousands of civil commitments and decisions by the courts often depend on the most recent "mistake" defined as an adverse outcome that occurred when a potentially violent person was released.  Certainly any case involving firearms and hundreds of rounds of ammunition or an actual shoot out with the police needs very close scrutiny.  Any "welfare check" by the police of a potentially dangerous person should involve a search for weapons and actual threats especially if they were posted on social media.  Mental health professional contact was described as being potentially useful but also limited by the nature of the follow up of patients with psychosis.  In fact, violence needs to be incorporated into the treatment  plan for patients with psychosis and violence and addressed in a comprehensive manner.  An appointment for a ten minute discussion of medications is not acceptable and it really is not an acceptable level of care for anyone with psychosis whether they are potentially violent or not.  Lake points out that there is also a call to avoid using the names and other materials posted by rampage killers.  I think that is a good idea and therefore do not refer to any of these materials here.

The discussion of what is the proper diagnosis of these murderers is the next article. Lake reviews the evidence (largely from media reports) and concludes that psychotic mania is the most likely diagnosis.  He has an interesting diagram in the article that shows both psychotic depression and psychotic mania converging on the diagnosis of "paranoid psychosis from mood disorders".  He also has interesting graphic using Venn diagram approaches that range from Kraepelin's initial clear distinction between bipolar disorder and schizophrenia to the more spectrum based approach beginning with Timothy Crow's continuum with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder being at opposite ends of the spectrum.  He expressed some surprise that schizoaffective disorder was still in the DSM-5, but it also considers Schizophrenia Spectrum and Other Psychotic Disorders separate from Bipolar and Related Disorders.  In reviewing the details from the media of five Rampage Killers, he concludes that in all cases psychotic mania was a diagnostic consideration based on hyperactivity, insomnia, and delusional thinking.  In one case there was a family history of bipolar disorder.

Lake goes on to point out that without an accurate diagnosis of bipolar disorder, patients do not receive standard of care which he defines as mood-stabilizing drugs.  He digresses to talk about the legal profession changing the diagnostic habits of professional and uses false memory syndrome as a case in point.  He goes on to suggest that "Successful legal action in the form of a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of unrecognized bipolar disorder misdiagnosed with and mistreated for schizophrenia could quickly change psychiatric diagnostic practices.  Another potential class action lawsuit is possible from some of the mass murder victims families in cases where before the rampage, the psychotic murderer had been treated for schizophrenia and not bipolar disorder."  Dr. Lake considers the problem basically to be one of "obsolete diagnostic concepts that promote substandard medical care for psychotic patients."

In 30 years of practice, I have not made the same observations that Dr. Lake has made.  In the example of false memory syndrome, that diagnosis and the associated multiple personality disorder phenomena was really practiced by a small minority of psychiatrists.  It was actively criticized at the time by prominent psychiatrists in prominent journals.  I  doubt that lawsuits against anyone had any impact on the diagnostic concepts of the vast majority of psychiatrists.  On the issue of diagnosing bipolar disorder based on a spectrum concept and the features of hyperactivity and insomnia. I would suggest that is fraught with problems.  Having seen patients over time patients with schizophrenia can also have these features. The same problems occur when considering standard of care arguments for mood stabilizers.  All of them (lithium, divalproex, lamotrigine) have significant problems with both efficacy and side effects profiles.  Antipsychotic medication is probably necessary in at least 50% of bipolar patients (in addition to the mood stabilizer), and many antipsychotics are FDA approved for acute bipolar disorder and bipolar depression.  But the larger problem is that there needs to be a standard of care than encompasses much more than medication.  That is good for all patients with psychosis and potentially very good for those at risk for violence.

The recommendations I have discussed before on this blog that I think will have the most impact would be:

1.  Establish centers of excellence for treating psychotic disorders.  We know the outcome of rationing mental health services.  We end up with inadequate inpatient and outpatient care for patients with psychosis and bipolar disorder.  The focus of all for profit systems is to transfer the cost of care for these individuals to public systems including correctional facilities.  If they end up being cared for in a for profit system, the care is concentrated on their ability to see a physician or more appropriately a "prescriber" for about 10-20 minutes and accurately describe their problems.  It is well known that psychotic rampage killers do not consider their homicidal ideation to be a problem and may actively try to hide those thoughts from any interviewer.

2.  A standardized approach to law enforcement intervention.  Law enforcement has a number of possible interventions available to them that are not available to mental health professionals.  The duty to warn legislation has blurred these distinctions and essentially removed a lot of responsibility from law enforcement.  There is really no reason why a person posting obvious threats on the Internet should not be treated with the same degree of caution as perpetrators of domestic violence.  That would include proscriptions against owning and acquiring firearms, police surveillance and where necessary orders for protection.  Threats to kill should trigger a response that involves a search for firearms and materials showing a plan to perpetrate violence.

3.  A public health approach focused on the issue of homicidal ideation as a potential symptom of mental illness.  The public and the patients themselves need to be able to conceptualize this problem as an illness and a symptom that does not need to be acted upon.  The article reference here refer to outdated diagnostic concepts and I would include the idea that patients with psychosis especially delusions cannot modify their thinking by means other than medication.  It certainly happens in response to events but also as a result of psychotherapy.

4.  Comprehensive outpatient care.  Brief checks focused on medications are doomed to fail.  These patients and all patients with psychoses need comprehensive outpatient care that includes home visits when necessary, psychotherapy, comprehensive cognitive assessments, and vocational rehabilitation.  When I first started working these were all available in my clinic.  Today it is unheard of.

Psychosis and psychotic people who kill are the psychiatric equivalent of a heart attack.  Any middle aged person in the country with chest pain gets admitted and goes through about 24 hours of comprehensive testing and imaging.  I don't know the actual statistics but I would guess that most of these people are not having heart attacks and their hospital and Cardiology bill is about $30,000 - $50,000.  Our system of care expects a person with psychosis who is totally unaware of the fact that they have a significant disturbance in their thinking to want to actively manage that illness on resources that are trivial in comparison.  In the case of an identified heart attack, that person will receive hundreds of thousands of dollar of additional care.  By comparison a person receiving the most comprehensive level of community care - Assertive Community Treatment or ACT receives those services for about $10,000 per year.  That service is typically limited to a few hundred people in each state and not covered by medical insurance.

The best approach to rampage killers is to offer a much better standard of care to all people with psychosis.  If it the right thing to do from the perspective of psychiatry, public health, and humanism.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

Lake CR.  Rampage murders, Part I: Psychotic versus non-psychotic and a role for psychiatry in prevention.  Psychiatric Annals 2104 (44) 5: 216-225.

Lake CR.  Psychotic rampage murders, Part II: Psychotic mania, not schizophrenia.  Psychiatric Annals 2104 (44) 5: 216-225.

Supplementary 1:

"Charges for chest pain, for instance, rose 10 percent to an average of $18,505 in 2012, from $16,815 in 2011. Average hospital charges for digestive disorders climbed 8.5 percent to nearly $22,000, from $20,278 in 2011."

J Creswell, S Fink, S Cohen.  Hospital Charges Surge for Common Ailments, Data Shows.  New York Times; June 2, 2014.


  1. Thank you! I agree. One thing that upsets me when these young men kill (and it is almost always young men) is the outpouring of hatred towards psychiatry. A friend of mine posted a link to an article stating that one thing most mass killers have in common is treatment with psychiatric medication. She believes, as do many others apparently, that it is the medication that causes the killing rather than perhaps the diagnosis (and lack of tx) that leads to the killing. The common thread is the psychiatric diagnosis -- sometimes not adequalety treated or diagnosed. Being prescribed medications does not ensure they are taken. I recently worked in a system where we did more or less provide pretty comprehensive care for people with psychosis: I had 25 minutes to an hour (if needed) to diagnose and treat. We had care managers, etc. We did a pretty good job I think. But I completely agree that we need centers of expertise. These centers will need to be funded by public money but since we are routinely cutting the funding for mental health tx I do see this happening any time soon.

    I could go on and on. I am now one of those private practice psychiatrists who won't treat acute psychosis. Why? it can't be done well in a solo practice and after 20 years I am burned out and can't do acute care psychiatry anymore.

  2. Thanks - you may be interested in the following post on the issue of medications causing homicide:

    There was also that decade of the manufacturer of Prozac being sued for the same reason. While I certainly would not count anything that trial lawyers do as proof - to my knowledge the FDA has never pulled a medication on that basis.

    As I posted I have been involved in many cases and the medication was not the problem. On the other hand I have had many people thank me for getting rid of those thoughts and suicidal thoughts that were a result of a psychosis.

  3. Thanks for giving me that link. That is so helpful. I don't challenge people when they say these things but now I have something to show them.

  4. What "center of excellence" exists within the federal government? The VA?

    Maybe Seal Team Six.

  5. GRECC comes to mind. At least in the days I was affiliated with VA, I saw a lot of good clinical work, training and research from these centers.

    In terms of psychosis, this is a gold opportunity for the APA or any other professional group to come up with a description of such a place, get it out there, and start to demand adequate resources. It takes a large group, we had a subgroup of Minnesota psychiatrists over a decade ago who came up with a proposal like this. They were able to use it as leverage to get the major insurers to disclose their "medical necessity" criteria, but those same insurers and the legislation ignored the major part of the proposal.

  6. The APA is gunning for more superficial/hands off not more nuanced and intensive psychiatric care. This kid actually had psychiatric care from the age of 8 and he went off his meds. Collabo-care means you never see the patient, so it will be interesting seeing psychiatrists have to testify on their killer patients they never actually met and never had a clue about.

    I would like to ask Dr. Lieberman how his "leap of faith" collabo-care plan fits in with the care of an individual such as Rodger, who ironically seems to be right in his supposed wheelhouse of expertise of impending psychosis.

  7. I have zero confidence that a federal healthcare system that would treat it's greatest heroes like dirt will treat its outcasts (who don't generally vote or fund political campaigns) with a modicum of dignity.