A New York City Psychologist, Dr. Kathryn Faughey, was killed in her office on Tuesday evening, February 12 by a man with a meat cleaver. Recently David Tarloff, a patient of both Dr. Faughey and the psychiatrist who worked in the same office suite, was arrested for the murder according to the New York Times. I hope I speak for all mental health professionals when I say that our thoughts and condolences are with her family and friends.
Attacks such as these are rare, especially in an outpatient setting. How rare is unclear as specific statistics do not appear to be available. These events though create a whirlwind of thoughts and feelings for mental health professionals. My immediate gut reaction was “God that person is sick!” Then, after a moment to process that, I thought, “that’s exactly right, the person is sick. If the killer was in fact a patient, that’s why he was seeing her in the first place, to be treated for a psychological problem.”
I felt camaraderie and loss even though I did not know Dr. Faughey personally. It may be a stretch to compare something like this with losing a fellow soldier in battle but the fact remains that she, like myself and my colleagues, was a person who chose to spend her life treating psychological problems. That comes with both good (pride, contributing to the welfare of society) and bad (suspicion from others, being labeled a “quack” and apparently at least a small risk of getting in harm’s way). To know someone who experiences what you do and then lose that person while she is doing it is a powerful experience.
I asked a few colleagues about their thoughts and emotions in light of these events, and they immediately shared my next reaction, which was fear that something like this could happen to them:
“My hospital is responding by talking about increasing security on the outpatient psychiatric clinic floor (or I should say getting security, because as of now there are no security guards on that floor), and they passed around the police sketch of the killer…It definitely makes me more fearful of my job…I wonder if this could happen to me.”
“…it gave me chills and I was horrified to hear how violently she was murdered. I felt awful and first was worried it might be someone I knew. It is a horrible tragedy, that poor woman. It makes me more fearful, especially since I am often in lonely offices at night in places with poorly lit parking lots with no buzzer system. I don’t like to think about it too much but that is a very vulnerable situation to be in, and although these horrible incidents don’t happen often, it is a reminder that we can put ourselves in positions that may be unsafe.”
While these quotes tap into what seem to be normal reactions, they miss the sweet spot of what’s important here. If a present or former client truly wants to hurt you, he will likely succeed. He will grab you in your office or wait outside of it or follow you home or shoot you from afar. There is no such thing as “true security.” That’s simply a myth that shrinks use to believe they are safe. And you will see more articles like these coming out over the next few months discussing how therapists need to be better prepared for these types of clients.
Of course you can carry mace and learn self-defense and press a panic button which may save you from an irrational and spontaneous attack, but if there is a premeditated effort involved, all the extra security in the building is not going to matter much. When I needed to decline the woman’s weight loss surgery she threatened to get her gun. What if she had already had it? Was calling security going to do anything if she pulled it out and shot me? When I worked in the prison that afternoon it took the officer many minutes to get me after I pressed the panic button. If the woman had attacked me right on the spot, how much damage could she have done before he got there? And to say that a lack of true safety is only applicable to mental health is clearly short-sighted: regardless of your job or area in which you live, complete and total safety is a mirage.
Perhaps the largest issue that comes from rare events like these is what it means for the mental health profession as a whole. There are a lot of ignorant people out there who have no idea what psychological or psychiatric problems are at all, and this will simply fuel their lack of understanding. I’ve preached from day one that therapy isn’t for the “weak or crazy.” I chose those two words when I started writing because they were the most common terms used when people would deride mental health services and the people who used them. Can I still say this? Do I now have to say that therapy isn’t for the “weak and not JUST for those who are crazy?”
Mr. Tarloff clearly had psychiatric problems (I would never label him or any other client as “crazy” because it’s an empty term that says nothing), had been arrested, hospitalized and evaluated many times for psychiatric problems, and apparently had gone off of his medication in August of last year. The system is going to be blamed to a large degree because of the repeated attempts to have Mr. Tarloff hospitalized only to have him released soon after. The New York Times is fair in pointing out that a hospital does not necessarily know a patient’s history of hospitalization, so his angry outburst on June 6th of last year involving violent threats wouldn’t be known to another hospital who saw him last month. And being labeled as dangerous in June does not automatically translate to an involuntary hospitalization in December.
Can this horrible occurrence galvanize us to create something more? A centralized system of psychiatric hospitalization history would be a great start which could help serve as a guide for clinicians who are considering holding their patients. Notifying outpatient therapists of these evaluations and hospitalizations would be useful to help therapists prepare, given the limitations that preparation will allow. But until we come up with a perfect formula for how to predict a person’s future behavior, especially violent behavior, and then learn exactly how to treat that behavior, we need to resign ourselves to the fact that we live in an unsafe world that we can’t truly shield ourselves from.