Dr. Kathryn Faughey

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.

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9 Responses to “Dr. Kathryn Faughey”

  1. Amber says:

    It’s stuff like this that makes me want to shelter my son and lock myself into my home. There’s only one place I’ve ever felt safe and unfortunately I don’t think I’ll ever be able to live there again.

  2. kate says:

    i used to work with this extremely violent autistic boy who eventually outgrew me and my ability to contain his outbursts. when he finally popped me in the face one day and busted open my lip, i demanded that the agency i worked for send someone bigger as backup. everyone they asked refused the job once they heard how violent he was, and so the agency finally stopped offering that information, instead just letting potential therapists figure it out on their own when they met the kid and he threw folding chairs at them.
    so i guess that’s sort of the catch 22 when it comes to a centralized information system of psychiatric hospitalizations. who’s going to want to treat the chronically violent schizophrenic who forgets to take his meds? granted, we may all have compassion for this person (no matter how many times that autistic boy clocked me in the face or tried to light his kitchen on fire, i still cared about him), but it’s not exactly a thrilling prospect to take on that level of pathology in an outpatient setting.

    my condolences to the friends and family of dr. faughey.

  3. Joy says:

    The system of communication for a lot of helping professions is in need of some kind of revision.
    Protecting someone privacy (ie a violent client) has become more of a priority than REALLY getting at the heart of the problem. The public education system is that way, also CPS and the foster system is that way as well. Foster & Adoptive parents are not given ANY information about a child they get before hand… In those systems it is extremely important to pass information along. When you have a special needs child and you want some continuity in care/education/treatment etc. It is almost impossible to get to the core of things without any clues.
    I’m not a big fan of a “permanent record” either (** Think Elaine in Seinfeld when she goes to the doctors.) But there has got to be a better way to get clients what they need and have safe therapists.
    I also agree w/ Dr. Rob that maybe to be a psychotherapist you have to be a little “crazy”. You have to have a great deal of hope- Hope that a client that is seriously ill will recover. You also have to have the guts to deal with heavy stuff, life is tough and heavy. And taking on others problems on top of your own isn’t an easy work. I do think those attributes will help therapists to work in “dangerous” settings and continue to care.
    We just have to remember to take some extra precautions… mom’s advice about going somewhere in groups, or being in an unlocked building alone doesn’t seem so silly anymore. Look out for eachother. 😉

  4. Wayland says:

    That sucks man. The world really sucks sometimes. Metal detectors and security guards with metal detecting wands at the entrance to the building could help.

  5. Matthew Lebowitz says:

    . You are unsafe as a psychologist, but as you say, everyone is unsafe. Trust is an important part of the therapist-client relationship. If I have to be frisked to see a psychologist than I probably won’t go, even though I have no intention of any wrongdoing. It’s important to retain the sanctity of the forum. As for record keeping and transferring client information, I also disagree with that. I’m a student and many more students die from school shootings and campus violence than do therapists of unruly clients. What if you made the argument that teachers should be privy to students psychological background? Or administrators? Confidentiality is important. Life has risks which can’t be eliminated.
    – Matt

  6. David says:

    I think it’s important to consider the possibility of violent clients when arranging furniture in your treatment room. Make sure that you have an exit. Be sure that your seat is between the client and the door so that you are not trapped against a wall if the client becomes violent.
    I recently brought this up in a large gathering of fellow clinical psychology students. The overwhelming response was one of shock. The hadn’t thought of this, and they obviously did not feel comfortable thinking about the possibility of seeing violent clients. They just wanted to save the world.
    The fact of the matter is that 80% of psychologists have felt afraid of at least one client. Most of my professors have shared cases where clients have brought guns to therapy or have explicitly threatened them. This makes me consider a policy of the clinical psychology program at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. They require people going through that program to take yoga or aikido as an experiential component. Many choose aikido. Perhaps learning self-defense would be a good thing for more therapists. Personally, I hold a black belt in kung fu, and I have started a student group at my institute to promote the practice of martial arts among the students. I also offer basic self-defense classes to my fellow students. The hope here is that none of this needs to be used, but I believe that it is best to be mentally and physically prepared for conflict so that you’re not caught with your guard down.

  7. joy says:

    This is in response to Matt’s comment…

    I don’t think teachers or other people not in the counseling/psychology field should be able to access psych history. When I was referring to the school system and and CPS the content of documentation is entirely different. The information passing in schools that i was referring to is Special education modifications and plans. If a kid is getting special services at one school and goes to another that school may never know what that child got/needed…until they figure it all out again. (Just like a “new” client who has been through the hospital system before.)

    My main point about the sharing of information is that it HELPS the client, student etc. We aren’t talking about trading information from profession to profession ie. therapist to school admin. and so on. Granted for some clients it is just impossible to keep up with them. I work with many families who are illegal in the US and when they disappear who knows if they are in Mexico or California or…? I think that physicality of history sharing is difficult, if not impossible…However it is a consideration, and hopefully can encourage some sort of thought and revision in the system. I think with all our helping of others it is important to remember to help each other as well.
    Many therapists would probably opt out of reading client history that they get when a client first comes to see them. History can make you bias- you would see that person through the other therapist’s eyes… But who wouldn’t like to know when a client starts to make them feel uneasy that this has happened before??

  8. Future Colleague says:

    This is so unbelievably sad and in a lot of ways. True nobody is ever really safe, but that is a bit too pessimistic for my taste, but the real issue is the lack of information which was shared. Sure we need to protect patient privacy, but when it comes to public health, and a professional’s safety something has to give. After all do we not share driving records and police records? Aren’t records as personal and private as your credit records shared for certain purposes?
    The latest school shooting, that kid who shot up the mall at Christamas and now this a therapist doing her job–three tragidies all committed by somebody who was diagnosed, prescribed medication and then went off those meds and people died.
    What has to happen before somebody realizes that a certian amount of sharing is a good idea when it comes to mentally destablized (not crazy, but sick) individuals?
    What are we going to do when one of these guys goes off his/her meds and starts building bombs? oh wait that happened too–anybody else remember teh unibomber?

  9. Sidney says:

    Rob, I was wondering when you were going to write about this. Your entry exceeded my expectations and delved into issues I had not even considered.
    Another bravo for your writing.