Psychologist: \’It\’s really hard to say\’ whether violence is triggered by mental health or politics

WASHINGTON (7News) After three bizarre crimes in the Washington area in recent weeks, a mental health professional tells 7News it\’s getting trickier to determine what\’s triggering the violent outbursts.

The first crime occurred earlier this month when a man who had previously claimed the CIA was imprisoning him allegedly attacked members of US Representative Gerry Connolly\’s staff with a metal baseball bat. On Monday, police charged a man with ramming into security barriers at Lafayette Square near the White House and threatening the president. On Wednesday, a man was arrested for hacking into a preschool with an AK-47 and telling a witness he was going to the CIA.

Dr. Beshaun Davis is a psychologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center and also an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He said he can\’t effectively diagnose the three suspects behind these cases without talking to them in person, but he knows that psychosis is something that surfaces in cases involving certain delusions.

\”I can\’t diagnose people from afar. I certainly don\’t know people\’s stories, the [suspects] of these crimes,” Davis said. Psychosis is something that many people experience, and many of these people have these persecutory ideas. What I mean by that is these ideas people want to take them.\”

Davis said the current environment also makes it more difficult to diagnose.

Growing political polarization and widespread disinformation have blurred the lines on exactly what triggers the violent outbursts.

\”This could be someone with psychosis, or it could be someone who functions relatively differently and just has a very abnormal belief. It\’s really hard to tell this time, and I think it\’s going to be harder and harder to tell with the increase in misinformation.\” online,” Davis said. “I think there is this Venn diagram of people who have psychosis and have these persecutory delusions that mostly would have experienced those in isolation previously. On the other hand there are neurotypical people who have some conspiratorial beliefs. We have a lot of misinformation there out with things like QAnon and if you think about things you\’ve heard about the vaccine. Things that we would consider abnormal 10 years ago are pretty trivial things we discuss now.\”

In the wake of the U-Haul incident near the White House, 7News reached out to the U.S. Secret Service to inquire about their methods of tracking threats, especially regarding people suffering from mental health crises. A spokesperson provided the following statement:

The US Secret Service takes all threats to our protégés very seriously. In order to maintain operational security, the Secret Service does not discuss the means and methods used to conduct our protective operations or protective intelligence matters.

These three cases are still under investigation.

Davis said it has become clear that the pandemic has made mental health issues worse.

“I think the pandemic has delayed treatment somewhat for many people. Many people who could have been involved in care much earlier have been faced with significant barriers to engaging in care. Instead of getting the care they needed need early on, many people had to delay treatment or were engaging in services that were incomplete. Many people suffered as a result of the pandemic in isolation. When we think about violent or less violent outbursts after the pandemic, it is not just about people with psychosis. It\’s everyone. We think about airports and people are arguing all the time or all sorts of things, there\’s that piece of social connection to everything. People are just not into how to interact with each other in polite society\” Davis said. “One of the most important things is getting care early and reducing your time of untreated illness. This is one of the things we do very well at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, but it has been difficult to get people involved in care when we have all these concerns about the spread of the virus. I think now that the pandemic has been declared over, I think there are a lot more people engaged in the care that they need.\”

However, Davis said she wanted to clarify that mental health issues and psychoses rarely cause people to commit violence.

\”Most people who end up with a psychotic disorder diagnosis aren\’t violent,\” Davis said. “People with psychosis are less likely to commit violence with some of these beliefs because the disorders associated with psychosis make people more disorganized. If I\’m thinking the president wants to get me but it\’s hard for me to form a cohesive plan or sentence, don\’t I\’m going to go ahead and pursue that plan.\”

Still, Davis said it\’s important to heed the alarming red flags with friends and family.

“People who tend to perpetrate some of these acts, I think are less psychosis and more often people who have typical risk factors for violence – people who are younger, people who are socially isolated and that is the main belief system at they adhere to. I think keeping an eye on people is important for a variety of issues, whether it\’s school shootings or people who may be committing acts of political violence,\” Davis said. \”People become more and more isolated, maybe they become more paranoid about things, maybe they start expressing beliefs that are particularly abnormal within your social group. I think it\’s important to take them literally to really understand the gravity of them because what happens, often times, especially with people we care about, we minimize. We\’ll say, \’Oh, maybe they\’re going through a phase, maybe this isn\’t a big deal.\’ What happens is it leads to people not engaging in care until much further, until a terrible event happens.

If someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, you can call the National Mental Health Crisis and Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. In DC, you can also call 1-888-793-4357. In Virginia, you can call 703-752-5263. In Maryland, you can call 211, then press 1.

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