On Dec. 14, 2016, a French psychiatrist was sentenced to an 18-month suspended prison sentence. Lekhraj Gujadhur, MD, was the supervisor of unit 101 at the Psychiatric Hospital Center of Saint-Egrève in France. In November 2008, he had approved the nonsupervised release of a schizophrenia patient, Jean-Pierre Guillaud, to outside of his unit but within the hospital facility. Mr. Guillaud, while outside supervision, escaped. He subsequently purchased a large knife and murdered a 26-year-old student, Luc Meunier , Le Monde reported .1

This is reminiscent of a similar case in 2012 in Marseille, where a psychiatrist received a suspended prison sentence after his patient committed murder. That prior case was later dismissed in appellate court. In my opinion, both trials point to a failure in psychiatry’s responsibility to educate the public in our limitations and roles. They also highlight the necessary discourse that society should have on the role of mental illness when it comes to crime.

Mr. Guillaud was 56 years old in 2008. He had been diagnosed with schizophrenia almost 40 years prior. He had a documented and known history of violence. Between 1994 and 2006, he assaulted six other patients and staff. In May 2006, more than 2 years before the incident, Mr. Guillaud stabbed a nursing home patient, causing him significant injury. The prosecution used this history to point to the poor judgment of Dr. Gujadhur. Other deficits included the lack of review of his violence risk and lack of face-to-face interactions with the patient.

Although I appreciate society’s concern about such crimes, I think that displacement of our anger onto Dr. Gujadhur is misguided, and instead, allows us to forget to look at our own poor judgment. Dr. Gujadhur, other psychiatrists, and mental hospitals do not have the responsibility to enact sentences for crimes; the legal system does. Law enforcement and prosecutors had numerous opportunities to charge and commit Mr. Guillaud over the years but chose not to do so, instead permitting him to stay within society under the care of the mental health system.

Asking Dr. Gujadhur to primarily focus on becoming an agent of the law, instead of treating his patient, is unfair. Schizophrenia, and in particular paranoia, are greatly worsened by social isolation. Confining Mr. Guillaud would be countertherapeutic and possibly lead to his suicide. Would Dr. Gujadhur have been responsible for the suicide? Mental health providers have to understand and support the psychological functioning of their patients. Creating a dual agency blurs and effaces the doctor-patient relationship, already so fragile in the treatment of paranoid patients.

The publicity of such cases, and of Mr. Guillaud’s mental illness, seems to go against current mental health research. Recent work has suggested that mental illness is not a significant risk factor for violence but rather a risk factor for being the victim of violence. Certainly, some patients with mental illness commit acts of violence, but studies suggest that this is mostly independent of their mental illness ( Law Hum Behav. 2014 Oct;38[5];439-49 ).2 Our overemphasis on the mental status of criminals belittles their crimes and suggests that psychiatrists are responsible for the failings of our legal system.

As a supervising psychiatrist at one of the largest jail systems in America, I am familiar with the challenges in such cases. All of my patients are facing legal charges, and many suffer from severe mental illness like schizophrenia. As their treating psychiatrist, I am not asked to also sentence them for the charges they are facing. Simply working for the sheriff makes my ability to gain the trust of my patients much more difficult. Conspiring with the city or district attorney in an attempt to protect society would obliterate any chance at rapport building.

Working in corrections, I am deeply familiar with the current debate on the solitary confinement of our mentally ill offenders. Ironically, in that context, society has blamed the legal system for socially isolating our mentally ill offenders, especially ones with severe mental illness.3 In our jail, we meet regularly and discuss in an interdisciplinary fashion the role and consequences of social isolation. During our weekly sessions, a case involving stabbing someone 2 years prior would not have justified the punishment of social isolation and constant monitoring.

As a field, psychiatry must educate society on its ability to create a therapeutic environment and its ability to provide risk assessment of violence. We must also remind others of the impossibility of doing both simultaneously. Decisions on removing patients’ right to freedom can be informed by the mental health perspective but should be left to the courts. Society’s need to find a target after such tragedies is understandable, but blaming the treating psychiatrists will not help past or future victims.

References

1. Le psychiatre d’un schizophrène meurtrier condamné pour homicide involontaire, Le Monde, Dec. 14, 2016.

2. How often and how consistently do symptoms directly precede criminal behavior among offenders with mental illness? (Law Hum Behav. 2014 Oct;38[5]:439-49).

3. How to fix solitary confinement in American prisons, Los Angeles Times, Oct. 17, 2016.

Dr. Badre is a supervising psychiatric contractor at the San Diego Central Jail. He also holds teaching positions at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of San Diego. He teaches on medical education, psychopharmacology, ethics in psychiatry, and correctional care. He mentors several residents on projects, including reduction in the use of solitary confinement of patients with mental illness, reduction in the use of involuntary treatment of the mentally ill, and examination of the mentally ill offender.

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