PJ Media

Psychology, a Riskier Profession than You Thought

by Helen Smith

I just read about the murder of therapist Kathryn Faughey in her office yesterday in NYC in this gruesome article from the New York Daily News:

The meat cleaver-wielding maniac who savagely murdered an upper East Side therapist planned the execution – and brought a sick bag of tools to the killing. Knives, rope, duct tape, women’s clothing and adult diapers were found in the luggage he abandoned after butchering 57-year-old Kathryn Faughey in her office, police sources said.

“No one is helping me! No one is helping me!” the balding butcher yelled as he hacked away at Faughey, said a rattled building resident who heard the screams.

I would like to say that the murder of a fellow mental health professional came as a complete shock to me — I am a psychologist, after all — but honestly, I am more shocked that murders like this happen so seldom. It is a little known dirty secret that psychologists and psychiatrists are at a high likelihood of being stalked or attacked:

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As a profession, there might be a little bit of denial,” Kanaris said. “We spend a lifetime thinking about others. We don’t always do a great job of protecting ourselves.”

A recent national study found that threats against psychologists and therapists are common. The American Psychological Association determined that 49% of psychologists had been threatened and 39% had been attacked at least once.

A recent survey of 238 North American psychologists found that 10 percent had experienced serious stalking events.

And lest you think after reading about the NYC murder above that female therapists are most at risk, studies show that this is not the case; contrary to surveys conducted in the general population, in the mental health field, those most likely to be stalked are psychologists who are male and they appear to be most at risk of being harassed by patients.

To give one example, take the case of Vallejo, California psychologist Ira Polonsky, Ph.D., who was shot and killed by what family members believe was a former patient. Unfortunately his death is still a mystery. Why? Blame the confidentiality laws in California:

…police have been stymied in pursuing that line of investigation because of confidentiality laws protecting Polonsky’s patient records and appointment books.

Vallejo police detectives are in touch with a court-appointed attorney – a “special master” – who is working with the county court to see if there can be at least a limited review of protected records, but neither police nor court officials will comment on progress in that area.

I noticed in the Kathryn Faughey case, her computer records were being investigated immediately after the murder:

They were searching her desktop computer for clues – after determining that an initial lead pointing to a patient wasn’t solid, the sources said.

I don’t know whether New York law is more sensible here, or whether the authorities are just being more active. But as someone who deals with the ethical and privacy rules relating to psychologists, I think that those rules should pay more attention to psychologists’ own safety. We’re required to take action when a patient threatens another person — so why isn’t anyone required to take action when a patient threatens us?

Helen Smith is a psychologist specializing in forensic issues in Knoxville, Tennessee and blogs at drhelen.blogspot.com. This advice column is for educational and entertainment purposes only and does not purport to replace therapy or psychological treatment.