Hinckley Still Haunts the House of Psychiatry and the Presidency of the United States


A man tried to kill a president. Should he be released or is he still a threat?




Just about 5 years ago, on November 4, 2016, I had an article “Hinckley Haunts the House of Psychiatry” posted by Psychiatric TimesTM. You may remember John Hinckley for his failed assassination attempt of President Ronald Reagan in 1981, after which he was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Even though he was reputedly in psychiatric remission in 2016 and functioning outside of St. Elizabeths Hospital, uncertainties still existed about the risk of his release. Yesterday, a federal judge approved his unconditional release next year. The judge, Paul L. Friedman, said that if he had not tried to kill a president, his mental state would have allowed his release long ago, yet it is virtually impossible to know what anybody is thinking if they do not want to share it.

One of the points of my original article was how difficult it was—and still is—to predict future violence. The best predictor is past violence; hence, the continuing concern over Hinckley. His motive was reported to be to impress the actress, Jodie Foster. On Monday, his lawyer, but not himself, expressed “profound regret” to Foster and his victims.

The Goldwater Rule for American Psychiatric Association psychiatrists tells us not to comment on a public figure, and this was relevant in the Hinckley case, though there was nothing like the intense controversy after Donald Trump was elected President around the same time in November 2016. Of course, President Trump was responsible for much more, so for those mental health professionals concerned, the presumed risks ethically could outweigh the rule. On the other hand, some could even wonder if President Trump could also be at risk from Hinckley just because he was President.

Two recent life changes led to what seems like a wise judicial decision to monitor Hinckley for 9 more months. One was the retirement of one of his primary clinicians, who is also disbanding his therapy group. Second, his mother, with whom he has lived for 5 years, died in the past summer. That would be consistent with at least a temporary therapeutic transition over this time period. As before, there are some, including at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation Institute, who think he is still a threat and strongly oppose his release. Perhaps similar questions will also reemerge with President Trump over time, depending on his political future.

What do you think? Should Hinckley be released? Share your thoughts with PTEditor@MMHGroup.com.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues relate to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric TimesTM.

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