The title of this post may look familiar because it was the title of a recent topic on the ShrinkRap blog. That is why I put it in quotes. I put in a post consistent with some the posts and articles I have written over the past couple of years on this topic. I know that violence, especially violence associated with mental illness can be prevented. It is one of the obvious jobs of psychiatrists and one of the dimensions that psychiatrists are supposed to assess on every one of their evaluations. It was my job in acute care setting for over 25 years and during that time I have assessed and treated all forms of violence and suicidal behavior. I have also talked with people after it was too late - after a homicide or suicide attempt had already occurred.
The responses to my post are instructive and I thought required a longer response than the brief back and forth on another blog. The arguments against me are basically:
1. You not only can't prevent violence but you are arrogant for suggesting it.
2. You really aren't interested in violence prevention but you are a cog machine of the police state and inpatient care is basically an extension of that.
3. You can treat aggressive people in an inpatient setting basically by oversedating them.
4. People who are mentally ill who have problems with violence and aggression aren't stigmatized any more than people with mental illness who are not aggressive.
These are all common arguments that I will discuss in some detail, but there is also an overarching dynamic and that is basically that psychiatrists are arrogant, inept, unskilled, add very little to the solution of this problem and should just keep quiet. All part of the zeitgeist that people get well in spite of psychiatrists not because of psychiatrists. Nobody would suggest that a Cardiologist with 25 years experience in treating acute cardiac conditions should not be involved in discussing public health measures to prevent acute cardiac disorders. Don't tell anyone that you are having chest pain? Don't call 911? Those are equivalent arguments. We are left with the curious situation where the psychiatrist is held to same medical level of accountability as other physicians but his/her opinion is not wanted. Instead we can listen to Presidential candidates and the talking heads all day long who have no training, no experience, no ideas, and they all say the same thing: "Nothing can be done."
It is also very interesting that nobody wants to address the H-bomb - my suggestion that there should be direct discussion of homicidal ideation. Homicidal ideation and behavior can be a symptom. There should be public education about this. Why no discussion? Fear of contagion? Where does my suggestion come from? Is anyone interested? I guess not. It is far easier to continue saying that nothing can be done. The media can talk about sexual behavior all day long. They can in some circumstances talk about suicide. But there is no discussion of violence and aggression other than to talk about what happened and who is to blame. That is exactly the wrong discussion when aggression is a symptom related to mental illness.
So what about the level of aggression that psychiatrists typically contain and what is the evidence that they may be successful. Any acute care psychiatric unit that sees patients who are taken involuntarily to an emergency department sees very high levels of aggression. That includes, threats, assaults, violent confrontations with the police, and actual homicide. The causes of this behavior are generally reversible because they are typically treatable mental illnesses or drug addiction or intoxication states. The news media likes to use the word "antisocial personality" as a cause and it can be, but people with that problem are typically not taken to a hospital. The police recognize their behavior as more goal oriented and they do not have signs and symptoms of mental illness. Once the psychiatric cause of the aggression is treated the threat of aggression is significantly diminished if not resolved.
In many cases people with severe psychiatric illnesses are treated on an involuntary basis. They are acutely symptomatic and do not recognize that their judgment is impaired. That places them at risk for ongoing aggression or self injury. Every state has a legal procedure for involuntary treatment based on that principle. The idea that involuntary treatment is necessary to preserve life has been established for a long time. Civil commitment and guardianship proceedings are recognition that treatment and in some cases emergency placement can be life saving solutions.
The environment required to contain and treat these problems is critical. It takes a cohesive treatment team that understands that the aggressive behavior that they are seeing is a symptom of mental illness. The meaning is much different than dealing with directed aggression by people with antisocial personalities who are intending to harm or intimidate for their own personal gain. That understanding is critical for every verbal and nonverbal interaction with aggressive patients. Aggression cannot be contained if the hospital is run by administrators who are not aware of the cohesion necessary to run these units and who do not depend on staff who have special knowledge in treating aggression. All of the staff working on these units have to be confident in their approach to aggression and comfortable being in these settings all day long.
Medication is frequently misunderstood in inpatient settings. In 25 years of practice it is still very common to hear that medication turns people into "zombies". Comments like: "I don't want to be turned into a zombie" or "You have turned everyone into zombies" are common. I remember the last comment very well because it was made by an observer who was looking at people who were not taking any medication. In fact, medication is used to treat acute symptoms and in this particular case symptoms that increase the risk of aggression. The medications typically used are not sedating. They cannot be because frequent discussions need to occur with the patient and a plan needs to be developed to reduce the risk of aggression in the future. An approach developed by Kroll and MacKenzie many years ago is still a good blueprint for the problem.
There is no group of people stigmatized more than those with mental illness and aggression. It is a Hollywood stereotype but I am not going to mention the movies. This group is also disenfranchised by advocates who are concerned that any focus on this problem will add stigma to the majority of people with mental illness who are not aggressive or violent. There are some organizations with an interest in preventing violence and aggression, but they are rare.
At some point in future generations there may be a more enlightened approach to the primitive thoughts about human consciousness, mental illness and aggression. For now the collective consciousness seems to be operating from a perspective that is not useful for science or public health purposes. There is no better example than aggression as a symptom needing treatment rather than incarceration and the need to identify that symptom as early as possible.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA