I’ve been trying to write this post for several days now. I keep starting – and then I get stuck. I can’t seem to think of the right way to write or how to organize it – so let me just start:
Last week, in Fullerton, California, a mental health therapist was stabbed and held at knife point by a patient. The ordeal ended with the patient being shot and killed by the police. The therapist survived. A tragic scenario all around and my heart is with everyone affected.
As the mental health community takes a few steps back to reflect and recalibrate, I find my own thoughts drifting to my work with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Our psychological associations use happenings such as these as an opportunity to remind us how important it is for mental health practitioners to have a “safety plan” in place in case a patient turns violent. In the 2008 article “How to: Stay safe in practice,” published by the American Psychological Association (APA), author Christopher Munsey notes that mental health practitioners ought to “remove potential weapons” from our offices. This includes “letter opener(s) or heavy paperweight(s).” And yet this goes counter to the work I do in my office with my patients.
A Knife in My Office
Less than a week before the stabbing in California, I sat on the floor of my office with a young adult patient. We were no more than a couple of feet from one another. Poised between us, on a cutting board was a paring knife, an essential tool for the exposure we were doing. You see, my patient had not held anything sharper than a butter knife for over one year. Formerly a joyful chef in his home, his OCD caused him to worry over intrusive thoughts in his head that made him fear he might stab a family member (or anyone close by) if he held a knife. His cooking all but ceased. The whole family missed his meal preparation. And so, on that day on my office floor, we faced his OCD head on by placing a knife of his choice (I’d brought in an assortment) on a cutting board that he dared to get close to.
My patient’s anxiety skyrocketed as he approached the knife. He shook and he sweated as he inched closer and his hand reached toward it. We ended the exposure, 45 minutes later, with him having managed to place two fingers on the handle (lest you wonder if this was progress, it is of note that he began on the other side of the room, about six feet away). Tears fell out of his mother’s eyes as she watched from the sidelines and began to fully comprehend the extent of her son’s fears, as well as the bravery he possesses.
But, are we foolish…
Bringing a knife into session is not so unusual for those of us who treat OCD. If our patient has harm obsessions, sometimes a knife is just what is needed to stand up to the disorder. It is a reclaiming of what OCD steals from the sufferer, the ability to do a simple task most of us do not think twice about – cut our food.
Yet, the non-OCD community regards us, at times, as outlandish, misguided, or downright wrong about our approach to treatment. An extremely well-respected and experienced psychologist I know once shared a story in an OCD workshop I attended about how an insurance company representative questioned his methods. The conversation began something like this:
“Well, Dr. X, if your patient is afraid she will harm someone with a knife, isn’t it ill advised to be using knives in your treatment?”
The psychologist then had to explain to the representative, also a psychologist, how OCD is treated. It was completely a foreign concept to the representative. A sad state when insurers of treatment do not understand how a disorder is treated. But they are not alone. I’m fairly certain much of the psychology community does not understand what goes on in a treatment setting when OCD is the focus, and I’m pretty sure they’d be aghast upon first learning about it.
So, while my professional organization suggests I remove all items that might be used as weapons against me from my office, my treatment with patients with “harm” OCD often involves noticing what items in my office might actually be used as weapons. Of course our focus is on helping them to tolerate their anxiety about being in the presence of their feared thoughts and the everyday items that might trigger these. My taking these steps in treatment means I must do a very thorough evaluation of my patient and have come to a well-thought out treatment plan that is in keeping with their diagnosis.
What about the patients…
I also know that incidents such as the one in California will trigger many OCD sufferers. A population that already regularly questions its own sanity may point to this incident as evidence that they may go “crazy” and attack someone. It could make them fearful of doing exposure work in session (“I might crack while doing an exposure and hurt my therapist.”). Worse, it could make them delay attending therapy for fear they will do something similar.
Where am I going with this? Mostly, I am saddened that incidents like this ever occur. They are apparently rare, but they do happen. As an OCD therapist, like all mental health practitioners, I must stay aware of this and not take safety in the office in a cavalier way. At the same time, I must do a thorough evaluation of my patients and act in the best interest of helping them to get healthy and functioning again.