I have been developing a theme of how to prevent homicide and mass killing for more than a decade. As previously posted, I think that this needs to be done independent of the firearms issue with a public health focus on both primary and secondary prevention. There have been a couple of developments recently that I would like to highlight and whether or not they are consistent with the public health approach.
The first is an article in the NY Times today on a unique approach to school threat assessment and intervention. The article describes LA County’s School Threat Assessment Response Team. Several threat scenarios are described that trigger a multidisciplinary response from team members representing law enforcement, school officials, and mental health. The way the program is described it is unique in terms of engagement. Threats at school generally result in one dimensional and fragmented approach to the problem. The school has a protocol that may result in suspension. Referral to mental health providers is frequently a limiting step due to the lack of appointments, insurance problems, or debate over whether the school system or the health care system is responsible for assessment and treatment. This patchwork system is a set up for people with severe problems falling through the cracks.
The LA County response is for the team to make a rapid same day assessment at the point of the threat and at the student’s home including looking at their room. How many times have we read about the marginal teenager who is thrown out of school for threatening behavior and they end up sitting in their room focused on the same thought patterns or watching other forms of violent activity on the Internet or in video games? Getting right into that environment seems like a powerful intervention to me and one that is likely to yield better results. The main reason for failure in situations where a threat has been identified is that lack of follow up. People who are threatening and aggressive are not likely to care if they are thrown out of school and they are not likely to follow through with mental health interventions. The response team also spends time educating people about how to communicate in emergency situations where there are many misunderstandings about confidentiality.
The LA approach is innovative and exactly what is needed to assess and intervene in crisis situations involving threats and dangerous behavior. In situation after situation, tragedies occur when people people come to the attention of someone and there is no clear map for assessment and treatment. That is true in the school system, in colleges and universities, in the workplace and in family situations. I have personally talked with people who said that they either did not know what to do or they actively tried several resources and were told that there were no appointments available or that the person was not dangerous enough to treat and unless they agreed to a voluntary assessment and treatment that nothing could be done. But it doesn’t stop at that point. I am also aware of situations where there clearly was enough evidence that the person was dangerous enough to meet criteria for an emergency assessment but it was not done of the person was released for the emergency department. In many of these cases there was an adverse outcome. What is the problem?
There is a significant bias against aggressive and violent people. To some extent that bias is self protective. Any reasonable adult knows the obvious advantages of avoiding conflicts or even irrational behavior. There are always plenty of stories in the news about the lack of Good Samaritans in situations where an aggressive act is being perpetrated in public. Many psychological explanations of this behavior are offered but I think the obvious motivation is avoiding the conflict and possible injury. That same code of silence often applies in cases where there have been sudden changes in behavior and the person involved has a treatable problem. A second level of bias is the moralistic approach to aggressive and violent behavior that equates this behavior with bad moral conduct. That applies in situations where criminals use aggression to intimidate people and get what they want. It does not apply when the aggression is a symptom of mental illness.
The bias extends beyond members of the general public. The health care system is activated by a legal concept called “dangerousness” or “imminent dangerousness”. Every state has different statutory requirements and those statutes are interpreted on a highly variable basis across every county in the state. In some counties it comes down to some of the public officials involved seeing themselves as protectors of people’s rights. In other counties, assessment and treatment are more of a priority. At the level of the health care system there is another layer of bias. The overwhelming bias these days is that people should not be assessed or treated in a psychiatric facility for more than 4 or 5 days and any assessment or treatment should be kept to the bare minimum. It is easy to find different clinicians make entirely different decisions when presented with the same potentially dangerous patient. The end result is a patchwork of acute care settings where people can go for help. Because of all the biases involved unless an aggressive act has been committed the likelihood of an intervention occurring is basically a coin toss.
That is why the LA County response is so important. It is an intervention that activates a rational response to threats from people who are likely in distress and possibly mentally ill. There is no dangerousness standard initially and that is a critical departure from the current nonsystem. The goal of the LA County response is to engage the person and their social network and not make a one-time assessment and decide to admit or discharge the patient based on a dangerousness concept. The LA County response is unique in that it is based on behavior and the goal is to help the person involved rather than decide on whether or not they should be committed. The overall approach is very similar to community psychiatry case management teams except LA County teams seem to have more latitude because they are not limited initially by commitment standards.
The is an excellent approach to the problem and I hope that it is researched, expanded to mental health crisis teams and widely adopted if effective. I don’t know why it would not be effective.
George Dawson, MD, DFAPA
Erica Goode. Focusing on Violence Before It Happens. NY Times March 14, 2003.