Too Close for Comfort: When the Psychiatrist Is Stalked

John S. Rozel, MD, MSL; Carrie Wiles, MS; Priyanka Amin, MD

Disclosures

Curr Psychiatr. 2022;21(1):23-29. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Abstract

Dr. A has been treating Ms. W, a graduate student, for depression. Ms. W made subtle comments expressing her interest in pursuing a romantic relationship with her psychiatrist. Dr. A gently redirected her, and she seemed to respond appropriately. However, over the past 2 weeks, Dr. A has seen Ms. W at a local park and at the grocery store. Today, Dr. A is startled to see Ms. W at her weekly yoga class. Dr. A plans to ask her supervisor for advice.

Dr. M is a child psychiatrist who spoke at his local school board meeting in support of masking requirements for students during COVID-19. During the discussion, Dr. M shared that, as a psychiatrist, he does not believe it is especially distressing for students to wear masks, and that doing so is a necessary public health measure. On leaving, other parents shouted, "We know who you are and where you live!" The next day, his integrated clinic started receiving threatening and harassing messages, including threats to kill him or his staff if they take part in vaccinating children against COVID-19.

Introduction

Because of their work, mental health professionals—like other health care professionals—face an elevated risk of being harassed or stalked. Stalking often includes online harassment and may escalate to serious physical violence. Stalking is criminal behavior by a patient and should not be constructed as a "failure to manage transference." This article explores basic strategies to reduce the risk of harassment and stalking, describes how to recognize early behaviors, and outlines basic steps health care professionals and their employers can take to respond to stalking and harassing behaviors.

Although this article is intended for psychiatrists, it is important to note that all health professionals have significant risk for experiencing stalking or harassment. This is due in part, but not exclusively, to our clinical work. Estimates of how many health professionals experience stalking vary substantially depending upon the study, and differences in methodologies limit easy comparison or extrapolation. More thorough reviews have reported ranges from 2% to 70% among physicians; psychiatrists and other mental health professionals appear to be at greater risk than those in other specialties and the general population.[1–3] Physicians who are active on social media may also be at elevated risk.[4] Unexpected communications from patients and their family members—especially those with threatening, harassing, or sexualized tones, or involving contact outside of a work setting—can be distressing. These behaviors represent potential harbingers of more dangerous behavior, including physical assault, sexual assault, or homicide. Despite their elevated risk, many psychiatrists are unaware of how to prevent or respond to stalking or harassment.

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