Saturday, July 28, 2012

James Holmes Had Seen a Psychiatrist

Yesterday, we discovered that, prior to opening fire in a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colorado James Holmes had consulted with a psychiatrist. Link here.

He had been a patient of Dr. Lynne Fenton, director of mental health services at the University of Colorado, and a specialist in schizophrenia.

Whatever the value of this information for Holmes’ defense attorneys, it tells us that Holmes was aware of what was happening to him and had sought help for his condition.

I suggested previously that his interest in cognitive neuroscience, especially his work on the biological causes of mental illness, suggested that he suspected, at the very least, that he was suffering from an organic brain disease.

Perhaps, his fellow students and teachers in the neuroscience program could not have known of his illness, but, shouldn’t we expect more from a credentialed professional?

As of now we have more questions than answers.

We assume that Holmes consulted with Dr. Fenton voluntarily, but we do not know how often. We do not know whether she had arrived at a diagnosis. We do not know whether she prescribed medication for him and whether or not he had taken it.

We are obliged to assume that if she had recognized the danger he posed she would have taken action, at least by reporting him to the proper authorities.

A specialist in schizophrenia should, in my view, easily be able to recognize someone who is undergoing a schizophrenic breakdown. If Holmes was seeking help voluntarily, he would have been less likely to be trying to hide what was happening to him. Since he had a research interest in organic brain disease he would have been likely to speak openly to someone he might have identified as a colleague.

Dr. Fenton might not have known that the breakdown would manifest itself in a massacre, but she should know that such a breakdown would very likely prove dangerous to the patient or others.

Now, we know that Holmes sent Dr. Fenton a "warning package" of materials describing what he was planning to do. He sent it a week before he opened fire.

Tragically, the package got lost in a mail room. If Holmes was trying to reach out to someone who might stop him… at a time when he knew he could not stop himself… he failed.

We do not know whether the package contained a record of what Holmes had told Dr. Fenton or what he had not told Dr. Fenton. If he had told Dr. Fenton of his plans and she had not taken them seriously, he might have wanted to send the package to convince her to do something. 

We must assume that Holmes did not consult with Fenton in the week leading up to the massacre.

Ironically, the University had in place a group of professionals whose job was to identify at risk mentally ill students.

The Washington Post reports that this group has had some success, but that it missed James Holmes.

It reports:

After the 2007 mass shooting that left 33 dead at Virginia Tech, the University of Colorado set up a special team to spot students who were suicidal or might pose a threat to others. There is no indication that the team — made up of mental-health professionals, campus police and others — had identified Holmes as a student in need of monitoring.

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