According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Justice, 55,882 workplace violent crimes were perpetrated against psychiatrists, social workers and other mental health workers from 2005 to 2009. This made them four times as likely to be assaulted on the job as workers in general.
Even worse, independent experts feel the number of assaults is almost assuredly much higher because violent incidents are grossly under-reported. Why? The reluctance frequently stems from a belief that violent outbursts are part of the territory, or the fear they will be blamed for provoking the attack. Others are simply reluctant to report someone they have been trying to help. Further, health care administrators often discourage reporting, experts said.
“No one wants bad publicity that potentially comes from workers reporting they suffered an assault,” said University of Maryland professor Jane Lipscomb, who researches occupational injuries in health care. “That’s a huge barrier.”
This risk of assault, an occupational hazard during the best of times and one that has become worse because of the persistent lack of funding for mental health services, the loss of thousands of in-patient psychiatric beds and the use of hospitals to temporarily house criminals with mental illness. By their reckless indifference, many health care facilities have failed to provide a safe environment for their employees, according to workplace violence experts.
“Hospitals don’t want to have a reputation as being the wild, wild West” so they “try to minimize it and keep it quiet,” said Dr. William Dubin, chairman of the psychiatry department at Temple University School of Medicine, who has written about violence against mental health professionals.
Gabriel Nathan, spokesman for Montgomery County Emergency Service, a private psychiatric hospital outside Philadelphia, noted that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent.
“Unfortunately, as in all populations, there are outliers which is why it is important to be aware and alert.”
In the latest case of violence, Richard Potts, 49, shot and killed his 53-year-old caseworker, Theresa Hunt, and wounded his psychiatrist, Dr. Lee Silverman. Silverman likely saved his own life and that of others when he crouched behind a chair, pulled out his own gun and fired several shots at Potts. Potts has been charged with murder.
Silverman, who was grazed in the temple and thumb by Potts, has not made any public statement about the shooting; however, prosecutors have said he regularly carried a gun for protection.