Threats of Violence in Counseling and Psychotherapy
There is an urban legend about an incident at a mental hospital caught on video: a psychotic patient at a hospital, who has a history of threatening violent acts, manages to smuggle a screwdriver from a workman. This patient, armed with said screwdriver, barricades himself into a room, takes a nurse hostage, and does not respond well to the attempts made by psychiatrists and police officers alike. In the end, the mental patient stabs the nurse hostage fatally in the neck with the screw driver. Of course, the supposed incident on tape that has circulated the semi-underground video circuit for decades (included on "Faces of Death Volume IV") is actually a poorly staged reenactment of an event which probably never occurred in the first place. However, tales such as these have inevitably become a part of the universal subconscious of a modern society still terrified by the mentally ill and any other "abnormal" members. Inaccurate profiling still prevails as a remnant from the heyday of phrenology and physiognomy. Actual threats are often missed simply because they do not fit the stereotypical expectations of who may become violent, while innocent and nonviolent people are wrongfully prosecuted by peers attempting to nip all violent threats in the bud. Together with modern fears regarding violent incidents such as workplace and school massacres, spousal and child abuse, serial killers, and terrorist attacks, many counselors and psychotherapists find themselves having to combat massive amounts of misinformation that is spoon-fed to the public through the three-ring-circus that is the media. Unfortunately, even trained counselors and psychotherapists are not immune to the harmful effects of public perception. At the same time, Americans are terrified and fascinated with violence; violence is fixated upon by many, yet a dangerous amount of people turn a blind eye to telltale signs that a threat of violence exists and could well be prevented. Perhaps the problem is allowed to continue because it is so fascinating. However, it is the responsibility of counselors and psychotherapists to educate the public, as well as themselves, regarding the daily threats of violence present in our society, how to recognize a violent threat, how to diffuse a situation to avoid a violent outcome, and how to help each individual overcome the harmful effects of violence. Threats of violence are common in the workplace, in the school, and in a domestic setting.
In the article "Bulletproof practices: as frequent targets of workplace violence, two ways to stop a bullet. The safest is through preventive" by Robert Grossman (2002), counseling is identified as one of the strongest tools to be used in defusing threats of violence in the workplace. As many as one million workers are the victims of nonfatal workplace violence in America every year, while almost seven hundred are victims of workplace homicide. Co-workers often joke about taking violent actions against one another, which can lead to a desensitization in the workplace to violence. Actual violent threats may then be ignored because they are not taken seriously. In all instances, respect is one key to preventing violence in the workplace; often times workers snap because they feel they have been wronged or mistreated, and there are many accounts from survivors of workplace violence that prove showing respect to one's co-workers can literally save a person's life. Here, already, two important issues for counselors to deal with have been identified: helping people take threats of violence seriously, and helping to foster respect among co-workers. Some innovative organizations have established "a program to help employees recognize potentially violent situations and prevent confrontations" (Grossman 2002), however this is a minority. One suggestion for all companies is that a zero-tolerance policy be enforced regarding violent threats or acts, but that instead of simply terminating any employee that violates this policy, instead give a referral for counseling or therapy of some kind. Professional counselors and psychotherapists should be a part of the complete team each organization designs to curb violent threats. Additionally, counselors must be incorporated into the post-trauma team as well, to help employees recover from violence events and prevent a simple continuation of the violent cycles.
There are many pitfalls that employers, and counselors, must avoid when combatting threats of violence. Proof that profiling to determine sources of violent threats can be misleading is perhaps given in the statistic that the highest industry rates for assault in 1994 were actually in nursing homes and residential care facilities. (Keim 1999) A nursing home is hardly the environment in which one would expect people to be "going postal." Counselors must work closely with employers when providing them with guidelines for recognizing a typical violent employee to ensure that these guidelines are not misused for the purpose of discriminatory hiring practices. Instead, perhaps the guideline can be used to determine which prospective or current employees should be referred to a professional counselor or psychotherapist for a complete evaluation. There are many legal concerns that employers must keep in mind when determining what methods will be utilized to deal with threats of violence. (Bahls 2001) Even when referring employees to counselors, there are legal dangers. "Employers who require counseling as a condition for continued employment may get into legal trouble if they do so on the basis of a 'perceived disability,' which is protected...In the case of threats or angry outbursts, though, it's the conduct itself that triggers the referral." (Bahls 2001) The possibility of a lawsuit should never interfere with an employer taking any and all means necessary to avoid a violent incident in the workplace, however.
The threat of violence in schools is an even more pervasive and frightening media spectacle than violence in the workplace. Recent episodes of school violence, such as the infamous Columbine shootings, have had a significant impact on the way in which violent threats are handled in an educational environment. Much of the responsibility regarding developing a strategy to combat school violence and prevent more tragedies of this type falls on the school counselor. "School counselors are meeting this challenge by providing violence prevention activities, assessing students' risk of engaging in violent behavior, and providing appropriate interventions when the potential for violence exists." (Hermann 2002) There exist a significant number of legal and ethical concerns when dealing with violence in schools, perhaps even more so than when dealing with violence in the workplace. It is important for counselors to be familiar with the warning signs that there may be pending threats of violence, however this is again an area where prejudice and unfair profiling can be harmful. For example, after the Columbine incident, many schools and entire communities formed a veritable witch hunt to destroy the "Goths" responsible for this tragedy. Unfortunately, this was based on mass-media inspired hysteria, not psychological principles or facts. As students belonging to alternative subcultures throughout the country felt the heat, episodes of violence continued in schools, in most cases either having nothing to do with the goth or alternative students which had been profiled. When they were involved, usually these students were actually the victims, not the perpetrators. Certainly, counselors are among those who must be held legally responsible for preventing incidents of violence. However, this must be done with an intelligent and fact-based approach, rather than basing the approach on superstition. "The use of criminal profiling as a means to identify students at risk for violence could be violative of students' constitutional rights....Researchers studying school violence have consistently found that there is no accurate profile of students at risk for violence." (Hermann 2002)
It may be beneficial to refer any students showing warning signs to the school counselor, but this will only be beneficial if that counselor is sympathetic, knowledgeable, ethical, and holding every student's best interest in mind. It is additionally important…