For a clinician working in a forensic setting, the assessment and management of violence is a core clinical skill. Unfortunately, evidence-based practices are often lacking for those patients with serious, treatment-resistant psychoses who defy current guidelines, or for those with severe personality disorders.
This is why I was pleased to see a new resource put out by the California Department of State Hospitals entitled, appropriately enough, the California State Hospital Violence Assessment and Treatment (Cal-VAT) guidelines (CNS Spectrums 2014;19:449-65). The authors, led by Dr. Stephen M. Stahl, are respected experts in forensic psychiatry, psychopharmacology, and psychology. The document is a thorough and thoughtfully organized work that can be employed in both forensic and nonforensic settings.
Too often, the general public will view violence as the sine qua non of mental illness. Rather, violence is often attributable to an amalgam of risk factors, and even the best psychiatrist can be hard-pressed to tease out which aspect is the predominant driving force behind aggressive behavior. Dr. Stahl and his colleagues do an excellent job laying out the most common etiologies: psychosis and disorders associated with impulsivity, psychopathy, medical conditions, and adverse reactions to medication. They provide a structured and logical approach to pharmacologic management, complete with flowcharts and a discussion of general treatment principles relevant to each etiology. They suggest both primary or acute pharmacologic interventions as well as adjunctive therapies and long-term treatment options.
Compared with other papers I’ve read related to the treatment of violence, the Cal-VAT provides a more comprehensive approach by also considering environmental and staffing factors that contribute to violence, and by outlining nonpharmacologic strategies. I found these additional considerations to be just as important as the prescribing recommendations, so much so that I wanted to emphasize them in this column. Understaffing, high staff turnover, inexperience, and inadequate staff training will affect both morale and unit safety. The Cal-VAT guidelines recommend peer support for colleagues as well as postincident opportunities for staff to process violent incidents by patients. Training in de-escalation techniques and violence prevention, as well as good communication between team members, also can minimize the level of tension on a ward.
I was somewhat more skeptical regarding recommendations for the management of predatory aggression, but again, the Cal-VAT cautions that treatment gains in this domain might be modest or nonexistent. I strongly agree with the need for treatment in a highly structured environment for patients high in sociopathy, along with consistent strong boundaries and close external supervision. Good communication between security and clinical staff is also essential.
The guidelines were developed for hospitals, and in a hospital setting, security measures like management of contraband or adequate security staff are just as important as in the correctional setting. However, some of the recommendations in the Cal-VAT may not be practical for a correctional setting, where formularies may be limited and there may not be a means for providing PRN medication. For example, the use of clozapine in a correctional setting may not be practical when weekly blood draws can’t be guaranteed. Nevertheless, the guidelines provide a useful framework for risk assessment and violence risk management.
The Cal-VAT assumes that there are options for moving a patient to a higher level of care within a facility when the violence risk becomes too great. Given that many public hospitals now have a high proportion of forensic patients, a change in ward may not be sufficient to manage this risk. As a profession, we can move violence management forward by addressing this last remaining barrier – the resistance some systems put up against accepting the difficult-to-treat patient. Correctional facilities should be willing to provide the treatment resources needed for mentally ill prisoners high in sociopathy, and hospitals must be equally willing to accept severely ill offenders who cannot be medicated within a jail or prison. For a full spectrum of care, violence management requires a system-level commitment by both public mental health and corrections.
Dr. Hanson is a forensic psychiatrist and coauthor of “Shrink Rap: Three Psychiatrists Explain Their Work.” The opinions expressed are those of the author only, and do not represent those of any of Dr. Hanson’s employers or consultees, including the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene or the Maryland Division of Correction.