Cases That Test Your Skills

Stalked by a ‘patient’

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For 20 months, Ms. I has been calling and sending threatening letters to a psychiatric resident whom she falsely believes is her physician. How can he respond safely and ethically?


 

References

CASE: Delusions and threats

For over 20 months, Ms. I, age 48, sends a psychiatric resident letters and postcards that total approximately 3,000 pages and come from dozens of return addresses. Ms. I expresses romantic feelings toward the resident and believes that he was her physician and prescribed medications, including “mood stabilizers.” The resident never treated Ms. I; to his knowledge, he has never interacted with her.

Ms. I describes the resident’s refusal to continue treating her as “abandonment” and states that she is contemplating self-harm because of this rejection. In her letters, Ms. I admits that she was a long-term patient in a state psychiatric hospital in her home state and suffers from persistent auditory hallucinations. She also wants a romantic relationship with the resident and repeatedly threatens the resident’s female acquaintances and former romantic partners whose relationships she had surmised from news articles available on the Internet. Ms. I also threatens to strangle the resident. The resident sends her multiple written requests that she cease contact, but they are not acknowledged.

The authors’ observations

Stalking—repeated, unwanted attention or communication that would cause a reasonable person fear—is a serious threat for many psychiatric clinicians.1 Prevalence rates among mental health care providers range from 3% to 21%.2,3 Most stalkers have engaged in previous stalking behavior.3

Being stalked is highly distressing,4 and mental health professionals often do not reveal such experiences to colleagues.5 Irrational feelings of guilt or embarrassment, such as being thought to have poorly managed interactions with the stalker, often motivate a self-imposed silence (Table 1).6 This isolation may foster anxiety, interfere with receiving problem-solving advice, and increase physical vulnerability. In the case involving Ms. I, the psychiatric resident’s primary responsibility is safeguarding his own physical and psychological welfare.

Clinicians who work in a hospital or other institutional setting who are being stalked should inform their supervisors and the facility’s security personnel. Security personnel may be able to gather data about the stalker, decrease the stalker’s ability to communicate with the victim, and reduce unwanted physical access to the victim by distributing a photo of the stalker or installing a camera or receptionist-controlled door lock in patient entryways. Security personnel also may collaborate with local law enforcement. Having a third party respond to a stalker’s aggressive behavior—rather than the victim responding directly—avoids rewarding the stalker, which may generate further unwanted contact.7 Any intervention by the victim may increase the risk of violence, creating an “intervention dilemma.” Resnick8 argues that before deciding how best to address the stalker’s behavior, a stalking victim must “first separate the risk of continued stalking from the risk that the stalker will commit a violent act.”

Mental health professionals in private practice who are being stalked should consider retaining an attorney. An attorney often can maintain privacy of communications regarding the stalker via the attorney-client and attorney-work product privileges, which may help during legal proceedings.

Table 1

Factors that can impede psychiatrists from reporting stalking

Fear of being perceived as a failure
Embarrassment
High professional tolerance for antisocial and threatening behavior
Misplaced sense of duty
Source: Reference 6

RESPONSE: Involving police

Over 2 months, Ms. I phones the resident’s home 105 times (the resident screens the calls). During 1 call, she states that she is hidden in a closet in her home and will hurt herself unless the resident “resumes” her psychiatric care. The resident contacts police in his city and Ms. I’s community, but authorities are reluctant to act when he acknowledges that he is not Ms. I’s psychiatrist and does not know her. Police officers in Ms. I’s hometown tell the resident no one answered the door when they visited her home. They state that they would enter the residence forcibly only if Ms. I’s physician or a family member asked them to do so, and because the resident admits that he is not her psychiatrist, they cannot take further action. Ms. I leaves the resident a phone message several hours later to inform him she is safe.

The authors’ observations

Stalking-induced countertransference responses may lead a psychiatrist to unwittingly place himself in harm’s way. For example, intense rage at a stalker’s request for treatment may generate guilt that motivates the psychiatrist to agree to treat the stalker. Feelings of helplessness may produce a frantic desire to do something even when such activity is ill-advised. Psychiatrists may develop a tolerance for antisocial or threatening behavior—which is common in mental health settings—and could accept unnecessary risks.

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