The Fort Hood Killer — Islamic Radical or Sick Psychiatrist?

by Dr. David Gruder

I am heartbroken over the soliders who were gunned down at Ft. Hood by one of their own. I am disgusted by those who are choosing to spin the actions of one obviously insane man into sweeping statements about all those who cleave to the Islamic faith. If you are among those who are tempted to believe those generalizations, I strongly recommend that you read an interview with another Muslim soldier who is stationed at Fort Hood before you become wedded to such an opinion.

I believe that making the utterly irresponsible claims I have heard that this gunman’s actions mean that our armed forces have been infiltrated with Islamic terrorists utterly defile the memories of the dead. This is because I believe that this outlandish speculation diverts attention away from what to me is a far more immediate and important problem: how on earth could such a deranged man have become a psychiatrist in the first place?

Republican US Senator Kay Baily Hutchison of Texas was quoted in a New York Times article as saying, “I don’t think that anyone would have ever expected a psychiatrist trained to help others’ mental health would be the one who would go off himself, unless there’s more to it…"

You bet there’s more to it. The question is, what’s the more? I believe that this situation goes far beyond being traumatized by treating soldiers who have been traumatized, as discussed in a CNN story. Dr. Daniel Amen expands on this to cover additional potential factors that could have come into play in this situation. But, I think that all of these considerations omit one particularly important possibility: Major Hasan might not have been cut out to be a psychiatrist to begin with, and if so his superiors might have let him slide through anyway.

Let me tell you a couple of stories…

The first story is from around thirty years ago, when I was in an internship during the final couple of years of my doctoral program in clinical and organizational psychology. Part of my internship responsibilities included supervising about a dozen masters-level therapists-in-training (When I was younger I always seemed to hold responsibilities beyond my "pay grade," as it were!).

One of those therapists-in-training that I was supervising was raising significant red flags for me. Rather than fading as time went on, my concerns only grew stronger, presenting me with an integrity dilemma. Should I keep my reservations to myself or notify someone in his masters program about my concerns? After consulting with my supervisor about this dilemma, I decided that in this case the integrious thing to do was to voice my concerns with my supervisee’s masters program supervisor.

I was quite dismayed when his supervisor responded to what I told him by saying he was reluctant to pursue the issue further. In my opinion, that supervisor was making his responsibility to nurture students more important than his responsibility to police our own profession. My perspective as a supervisor was that both priorities were equally important, that neither priority should be allowed to overshadow the other, and that in the end protecting the public took priority over protecting the feelings of my supervisee.

Long story short, after hitting a dead end with my supervisee’s school supervisor, I took the matter into my own hands because I believed I had an ethical responsibility to do so. The strategy I chose was to see if I could help my supervisee decide for himself that he was not cut out to be a psychologist… and if I did not succeed at doing that I would then talk to his school supervisor’s superior about the matter. Fortunately, I did succeed at helping my supervisee come to his own conclusion that he was not cut out to become a psychologist. To my relief, he dropped out of the internship and his masters program, and as far as I know, that was that.

The second story is from a number of years after that episode, after I had my completed my doctorate and had become a licensed psychologist. A seasoned psychoanalyst had become my client (when I was in practice a large proportion of my clients were helping professionals and clergy, in addition to people in business, political and community leadership roles).

Now, understand that in order to become a psychoanalyst one of the things you were required to do was complete your own analysis (this was called a "training analysis"). Long before he came to see me he had completed his training analysis. Because of this, the deeper he and I went in our work the more alarmed I became over the central, huge, and quite deep problems we were addressing had never been touched in his training analysis. I was chagrined because I could not imagine how he had made it through that screening experience for qualifying as a psychoanalyst without his analyst confronting those issues.

When I asked him how this could have occurred, he explained that his analyst had done a powder-puff job with this training analysis, not treating it with the seriousness and gravitas it deserved. He further told me he hadn’t complained about this because his impression was that this was pretty standard procedure in his psychoanalytic training program. Although I did not blindly believe his broad brushstroke assessment, I also knew that it could have been true in his program because this was not the first time I had heard such stories.

So, what does all of this have to do with Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the Ft. Hood mass killer? I of course wouldn’t have any way of knowing since I’ve never heard of the man, let alone met him. But, I do know enough to pose this question: How many trainers and supervisors might have seen red flags about his becoming a psychiatrist, and looked the other way?

We may never know the answer to this question because the profession’s code of ethics, and probably also the Army’s code of conduct, bars those individuals from breaching confidentiality by speaking publicly about such matters unless ordered to do so by a judge during a court proceeding that is open to the public. (Additional note from after I orignally wrote this post: USA Today published an article hinting at some of what I had proposed in this post. Click here if you want to read it.)

What I submit to you in this IntegrityWatch Blog post, though, is that jumping to conclusions about this psychiatrist’s religion having caused him to become a murderer might miss the mark, and that jumping to even bigger conclusions about what this individual man’s horrendous behaviors say about American Islamic armed forces members in general is a distortion of huge proportions that only serves to obscure whatever the real issues turn out to be in this case.

(Additional note from after I orignally wrote this post: Dr. Lisa Firestone published an extremely valuable article on Huffington Post about the overlooked psychological warning signs that should have raised big red flags with Major Hasan’s superiors in the psychiatry department. Click here to read this article so you yourself can know the kinds of suicide and homicide warning signs to look for in those you work with or care about.)

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