Let me start with the usual disclaimers. We have very little information about the young man who allegedly shot 70 people at a midnight showing of the "Batman" movie in Aurora, Colo., and from a psychiatrist's standpoint, there is nothing to say. Let me add to my disclaimer that I am going to mention some statistics as my article goes on and they were obtained through a quick, informal, e-mail poll that was not validated and doesn't begin to approach anything one might call science.
I was surprised, and a bit dismayed, last week when the media announced that a package had been recovered from a university mail room that was addressed to Dr. Lynne Fenton, the director of student mental health at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus, where the alleged shooter was a graduate student. While other high-profile mass murderers have had histories of psychiatric treatment, this is the first time that I can recall the name of an alleged treating psychiatrist being released by the media so soon after a tragedy.
I know nothing about this psychiatrist – whether she did in fact treat the alleged shooter, whether or not she offered adequate or appropriate care – I felt badly for her. If she did, in fact, treat the shooter, she must be quite upset.
To me, the hardest part about being a psychiatrist is feeling responsible for the behavior of others. If, as the media reported, there were no warning signs, then this is every psychiatrist’s worst fear.
The journalists proceeded on with a flurry of reports. The first story I saw said Dr. Fenton studies schizophrenia. Wouldn’t that lead the general public to believe that the shooter must have schizophrenia? While that might be the case, it could also be that a student mental health center treats all students requesting care, and that most of them probably do not have schizophrenia. It could also be the case that Dr. Fenton had never treated the alleged shooter, but that he had simply identified her as someone to send a package to.
Soon after, the media began to focus on the psychiatrist's past misdeeds, with headlines about her "dark” and “troubled” past, and this has been the focus of many news stories over the past few days. The implication, I believe, is that the alleged shooter was being treated by a bad psychiatrist.
Dr. Fenton had been disciplined in 2004 for writing prescriptions for herself, her husband, and an employee with a headache, events that occurred in 1997-1999 (Colorado State Board of Medical Examiners Stipulation and Final Agency Order, case no. 5101021920, Sept. 23, 2004). Apparently, her prescribing practices came to the attention of the Drug Enforcement Administration when she reported a former employee who was forging her prescriptions to get large quantities of narcotics.
In the course of the DEA investigation, it was revealed that she had written the following prescriptions without documenting them: Claritin and Ambien for her husband, three tablets of Xanax that she took during a period when her mother was dying, four tablets of Xanax for someone who was anxious about an airline flight, and a prescription for a pain killer and sedative for an employee with a headache. Dr. Fenton admitted to these infractions, received a letter of admonition, and was required to take a course on documentation.
Are these prescriptions, written nearly 15 years ago and sanctioned 8 years ago, somehow relevant to the Aurora shootings? I have a hard time seeing it as anything other than dragging a psychiatrist through mud for the sake of getting muddy. In a quick and dirty e-mail poll, I discovered that 85% of a small sample of psychiatrists had ever written a prescription for themselves, a family member, a colleague, or a friend, while 20% had written a prescription for a controlled substance for someone who is not their patient. Again, my sample was small, my methods were not scientific, but I wanted a frame of reference for a doctor’s infraction that has been so sensationalized.
When a tragedy such as this happens, everyone is quick to look for reasons. We’d like to understand what transpired so that we can prevent it from happening again. None of us want to be killed at the movies, and none of us want to make the wrong call on a potentially violent patient. I don’t know anything about Dr. Fenton or her relationship with the alleged Aurora shooter, but I do believe the media should try to keep the stories relevant.