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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Dr. Bruce E. Nivins, the Anthrax Case and the Stigma of Mental Illness

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Aug 7th 2008

 Dr. Bruce E. Ivins, a microbiologist, worked at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, MD. On July 29, 2008, Dr. Ivins committed suicide, apparently as a result of the FBI investigating him as the primary suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed 5 people and sickened many others. The FBI and the United States Government state that they are now certain that he was the culprit in the tragedies that frightened the nation during the anthrax attacks.

I do not know if Dr. Ivins is indeed guilty of this crime. Rather, what concerns me is the issue that the government and press are making about Dr. Ivins' mental health prior to, during and after the attacks. The implication, implied but never stated by the U.S. Government, is that Dr. Ivins, having committed suicide, must have been guilty. I am not suggesting that the suicide is taken as the only evidence against him. However, there is that lingering assumption or implication.

So, what is the real hidden meaning in all of this sensational news? What concerns me is the latent meaning behind the news: "He must have been guilty because he was mentally ill."

It seems that there is no doubt that Dr. Ivins was mentally ill. He wrote many E. Mail messages(to whom I don't know) and poems that reveal a man who struggled with paranoid delusions. He seems to have been aware of his delusions and fought with himself to control his thoughts and behaviors. He was seen by psychiatrists and treated with a variety of medications, including anti depressants as well as anti psychotics.

Friends, family and colleagues state unequivocally that there is no way he could have mailed anthrax spores out to the nation. In addition, the very same people assert that Dr. Ivins committed suicide because he was mentally fragile and could not withstand the pressure of the FBI investigation. All of this is certainly possible.

What interests me and what I want to bring to the attention of the readers of this posting is what Dr. Richard G. Rapport, MD, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, stated after examining all of the papers connected with the case.

Dr. Rapport said:

1. Dr. Nivins appeared to exhibit psychotic characteristics.

2. "It is pretty apparent he (Dr. Nivins) had psychological problems. He may have been on the fringe where he was still able to function, even if he did not function well."

3. Dr. Rapport also said that everyone who does this (commits murder) is not crazy.

To me, this is the most important part of the story as it now stands. It seems to me that it makes perfect sense that someone who commits murder does not have to be crazy. It was made perfectly clear to the public that Osama Ben Laden's attack on the World Trade Center, in 2001, was not the act of a madman at all, but that of a cold and calculating terrorist and leader of a radical Islamic organization.

In other words, whether Dr. Ivins was guilty or innocent has nothing to do with the state of his mental health, in my opinion. Just because he may have been "crazy" does not mean he was necessarily guilty and just because he may have been perfectly healthy mentally does not necessarily mean he was innocent

I stress this last comment because I am always worried about the "bad rap" that the mentally ill get in the news, media and movies.

What do you think?

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at dransphd@aol.com for details.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    a little perspective about interrogation - M,RPh - Dec 9th 2008

    I thought that this article was very interesting. I have been a pharmacist for 21 years and have had much experience in dealing with people with all types of illnesses. First of all, anyone that will take some time to educate themselves about any given form of mental condition will understand that mental illness is no different than other chronic physical illnesses from diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, lupus or many others. Current medication therapy is designed to adjust neurotransmitters (chemicals) in the brain to improve symptoms for the individual suffering from the illness. There should be no more stigma to any mental illness as compared to high blood pressure or asthma! 

    Having said that, I want to respond specifically about Dr. Nivins. I want to tell a story. One of my areas of expertise is chronic pain treatment. Many people who are suffering from certain types of cancer have horrific pain constantly and take extremely large doses of high potency narcotics such as various forms of Oxycodone  and Morphine products. In one such instance, the pharmacy that I worked for had "lost" several tablets of one type of these narcotics. Of course, the pharmacy personnel were very actively engaged in trying to find the "missing" medication as various government agencies highly regulate these particular medications. When we could not find the missing medication, the medication was reported missing and local narcotic officers were called in.

    Two very average individuals took each staff member, one at a time, into a empty room and proceeded to interrogate each person, myself included. It is very interesting how they did this interrogation. My impression was that one individual seemed to take  the "good cop" role and the other one took the "bad cop" role.  The "G" cop talked about ordinary things pertaining to pharmacy things or whatever. Then when the person being interrogated seemed to be relaxed (obviously you are extremely nervous because you think that they think that you took narcotics!), the "B" cop would interject some statement like "you have been on pain medications for awhile, or how long have you been using narcotics", or whatever. The perception was that you were actually being accused of the "crime."  It was very unsettling and very scary. 

     Looking back on this, I suppose this method  of interrogation was designed to  "study" typical behaviors of a guilty person and I suppose their best outcome would to have someone to break down and confess. I am here to tell you that I have not been diagnosed with any mental conditions but this was a harrowing experience. The interrogators are highly trained to get information out of people and I am sure that they are good at their job (obviously!) but I would speculate that a vast majority of people that are interrogated in this manner are innocent as was in our staff's case. Just a few days after all of this transpired, the "missing" medication was found in a very logical manner.

    This event happened about 10 years ago and it is still very fresh in my mind. This is the only time in my entire 21 year career as a pharmacist that I experienced this type of thing. My point is that I remember how I felt when being accused of something that I know I didn't do and I cannot begin to understand what Dr. Nivins felt. I cannot imagine the very public attack on him even now and it is my opinion that ANYONE would crack under that kind of situation. I can't bear the thought of ever being interrogated again and I can't imagine what it would be like to be exposed to this treatment multiple times like this person apparently was. I am appalled that this man was driven to suicide from this horrifying event and that his family is still being plagued by this atrocity.

     

     

    100% - - Aug 8th 2008
    When I was watching the news, your arguments came to my mind before I even read your article. I agree, there is a social stigma against those who are mentally ill, in this case suiciders. In my mind, mental illnesses are the same as physical illnesses. Some are genetically predisposed to either type of illnesses. As a result, there should be no shame in taking medication to treat mental illnesses or any range of physical illnesses,but there is one for mental illnesses. What is am arguing is not just suicde being stigmatized, but mental illness in general. This stigmatization may result from society not recognizing mental illness as an illness. As a child when learning about eating disorders in health class, I looked down on those people who were mentally ill,not understanding it was a mental issue. Never once did our health instructor teach us accordingly. I am 22, so I am somewhat young and have been out of middle while. I don't know if they are teaching our young children properly now. I am not a doctor, so I do not really have much say in this matter. All I know is that people are unjustly stigmatized for there unstable mental status. Infact, it could be said that this is a form of discrimination, but I don't want to sound like a fanatic. 

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