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Will Colorado Theatre Massacre Reignite the Debate Over Forced Treatment?

July 23, 2012
by Steve Bell
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In Public Policy, Perception is Often Reality

In the minds of many, Colorado may be  ground zero for mass murder.  Columbine High School in LIttleton.   The lone gunman who shot and killed  churchgoers in Colorado Springs.  And now the horrific mayhem and loss of life caused by yet another young man in a crowded theatre in Aurora.  Besides their genders and ages, all these alleged or actual perpetrators were also tagged with a diagnostic label;  schizophrenic, paranoid, bipolar, etc.

I'll leave the detailed clinical, academic and legal analysis to other writers and bloggers.  I want to talk about fear.  The real fear that people living with a psychiatric disability have when such tragedies take place.   Fear that some, medical providers,  advocates, family members, political leaders will call for changes in the law to force people to be evaluated and treated against their will.  

This morning I opened the Denver Post and read the headline that screamed for my attention (just for the record, the 'voices' on the front page were not yelling at me);  "Suspect Saw Psychiatrist".    The first sentence of the article says, "James Eagan Holmes-suspected in the Aurora movie-theatre attack- was seeing a University of Colorado psychiatrist to whom he allegedly mailed a notebook before the July 20 massacre, court documents reveal."

 Wow.  He saw a mental health professional!   A psychiatrist no less.  How many visits with her did he have?   What kind of screening or assessment was completed?   Did she refer him to a counselor?   What kind of medications, if any, did the doctor prescribe?  What indicators were there that he might have paranoid or violent thoughts and plans?   A gag order and mutiple 'patient-doctor' privacy motions filed by  defense counsel will probably keep America in the dark about the answers to these questions until the man has his day in court.

When I first saw the news on the Internet about the mass muders in a city just 70 miles north of where I live in Colorado Springs, I thought, "Oh no.  Not again!" People gunned down with high- power military assault weopons in a crowded theatre.  Nothing good will come of this.  Families and friends out for a good time, their lives cut short or their bodies and minds mangled by a cold-blooded killer who was immediately taken into custody.   If this young man is tried and convicted, he must face whatever sentence the courts impose.   Whether one labels him  a monster or a madman,  he broke the law and must face the consequences.  That's my personal take on the case.

However, there is another large issue to be addressed here.  Bloggers posting their comments online were saying such things as; "I wouldn't doubt it if the man turns out to be bipolar,  they can have psychotic episodes."  or  "You can be smart and a nut case at the same time.  Most serial killers are highly intelligent sociopaths."  Then there is the expert analysis by a former FBI profiler interviewed on ABC News; "It is very probable that this man had started a slide into paranoia symptoms  over a year or so-- schizophrenia, (and the) symptoms were probably mild at first.."



Steve Bell

Peer-Provider and Advocate

Steve Bell


Steve Bell is the co-founder and executive director of  BrainStorm Career Services, a consumer-...

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