For a time last October, the entire country ducked as the media carpeted the nation with its wall-to-wall coverage of the sniper shootings in the Washington, D.C., area. Still sensitive to the threat of international terrorism and still stinging from the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that included the Pentagon, it was no wonder that the mysterious assaults pushed public curiosity to the limit.
Who could be the perpetrator was a legitimate question people were desperate to answer. Whether the media's parade of experts helped provide the response in a constructive way, however, is not clear now that neither of the two suspects ultimately fit the profile that emerged in the weeks leading up to their arrest.
John Allen Muhammed, 41, and Lee Malvo, 17, were not the lone, white gunman the pundits often predicted would be captured. And there has been no early claim that mental illness will play a role in their defense.
While there were any number of forensic experts who speculated about the cause of the attacks, that psychiatrists joined the fray added to concerns that professional ethics and the public's perception of mental health care practitioners and mental illness may have suffered.
The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) issued a "StigmaBusters Alert," criticizing the link being drawn between mental illness and violence as an "irresponsible rush to judgment-based on inaccurate information, sensationalism, lack of balanced reporting, and stereotypical thinking." It singled out the New York Times for quoting a psychiatrist who "suggested" that the shootings were the work of someone with manic depression, without seeking other opinions that would have countered that view.
"What motivates the sniper?" wrote forensic psychiatrist Paul S. Appelbaum, M.D., in an Oct. 15, 2002, Washington Post editorial, a week before the suspects were captured. "I don't know and neither does anyone else."
Reflecting on the sniper episode in a subsequent interview with Psychiatric Times, Appelbaum, president of the American Psychiatric Association and chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine in Worcester, Mass., said that while psychiatrists were not the worst commentators, "there was a lot of bad behavior," and some of it came from them.