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Violence Against Mental Health Professionals: Fenton Death Highlights Concerns

Violence Against Mental Health Professionals: Fenton Death Highlights Concerns

Once his colleagues began to recover from the shock, the death of Dr Wayne S. Fenton triggered a discussion in the professional and lay press about the risks of violence to mental health professionals posed by mentally ill patients.
Fenton was found unconscious and bleeding in his office in Bethesda, Md, on Sunday, September 3, 2006. He had been beaten severely around the head and died at the scene.

A 19-year-old man, Vitali A. Davydov—his name was published following his arrest—was found nearby with blood on his hands and clothing. Fenton had met with Davydov for the first time the day before, on a referral from a colleague. On Sunday morning, Davydov's father asked Fenton to meet with his son again because the young man was refusing to take his medications.

According to news accounts, the charging document presented in court says that Davydov "elected to make a statement of admission to the crime" after being informed of his rights. Davydov was indicted for the killing on October 26. The charging document also says that Davydov was being treated for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Fenton was director of the Division of Adult Translational Research and associate director for clinical affairs at the National Institute of Mental Health. According to a statement from NIMH, he "authored textbook chapters and more than 50 scientific papers on [the] diagnosis, treatment, outcome, and service delivery for schizophrenia. He also served as Deputy Editor of Schizophrenia Bulletin and served as a consultant to the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. He was active in the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, serving on the Scientific Council of this advocacy organization."

In addition, he was NIMH's liaison to the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the World Psychiatric Association and was involved in the development of the agenda for the forthcoming DSM-V. Fenton also maintained a private practice in Bethesda and had a reputation for working with extremely difficult patients.

Two days after Fenton's death, the Washington Post headlined a story, "Devotion to Most Severe Cases Raises Risk of Personal Danger." The article began, "Wayne Fenton knew better than most about the risk of treating people with severe mental illness," which drew an immediate response from Liz Spikol, managing editor of the Philadelphia Weekly, who writes a blog about mental illness.

"This is entirely predictable spin, but it's misleading. The fact is, the vast majority of violent crimes are NOT committed by a person with mental illness," she wrote, citing a passage in an August 2005 commentary by Leon Eisenberg, MD, published in Archives of General Psychiatry: "In the public mind, violence is associated with mental illness. Yes, there is a strong association, but . . . persons who are seriously mentally ill are far more likely to be the victims of violence than its initiators."
The Post article, quoting Fuller Torrey, MD, said that "each year, people with serious mental illness commit about 750 murders, or five percent of the homicides, in the United States."

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