The Grief Police

Posted Jan. 7, 2002

Police officers in Queens, N.Y., offer each other support at a funeral for one of their colleagues lost in the World Trade Center attacks.
During the Oct. 20 Madison Square Garden "Concert for New York City," a tribute to New York City's finest, Michael Moran of Ladder Company 3 stood before thousands of his peers and tens of millions of TV viewers and left no doubt as to what he thought about the deadly Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and about the man responsible. "Osama bin Laden," the hulking firefighter shouted, "you can kiss my wild Irish ass!"

The arena went wild, erupting into applause, laughter and chants of "U.S.A., U.S.A." Moran had lost his older brother and 12 other colleagues in the World Trade Center attacks and simply said publicly what a great many Americans were feeling.

Most mental-health professionals would agree that Moran, saddened and angered by his loss, was ensuring good mental health — sharing his feelings with others, getting out his anger. Given the positive reception, there seems little doubt that those in the arena and the millions watching the concert at home understood perfectly. In fact, Moran's remarks directed at the Saudi cave dweller were so well received that they were not deleted from the broadcast and are highlighted on the newly released CD of the concert.

Slightly more than a month later, however, New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, apparently concerned about how his 55,000-member force was holding up, announced mandatory mental-health counseling for every member of the New York City Police Department (NYPD), from administrative personnel all the way up to the commissioner himself.

Although the NYPD refused numerous requests by Insight for an interview about the mandatory counseling, press reports say the "mental-health" plan for the nation's largest police force isn't a new one. A similar plan was implemented following the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, after which nearly 9,000 participated in some form of mental-health counseling. In fact, the Oklahoma City bombing is cited as precedent when questions are raised with the NYPD about the mandatory counseling. Again and again those asking why this is being done are told by police, political and psychiatric spokesmen to "remember all the rescue workers who committed suicide after the bombing" in Oklahoma City.

But there is little or no data about either the form of counseling provided in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing or the extent to which rescue workers who allegedly committed suicide there did so before or after they had been subjected to the counseling services. There is abundant data, however, about the large amount of federal money made available for mental health after the Oklahoma City tragedy. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the federal government spent almost twice as much on mental-health counseling as on relief — a whopping $4.1 million, compared with just $1.7 million for housing assistance and $468,000 for replacing personal property.

While the level of care provided by mental-health professionals after the Oklahoma City attack seems impressive, Insight has learned from survivors of the bombing that attending counseling sessions was made a requisite to qualifying for financial assistance. According to one survivor who asked not to be identified, the authorities were careful not to "say we had to go to counseling, but we didn't get any financial assistance until we did. They just kept suggesting that we go every time we sat down to talk about the various benefits." She tells Insight that after her first counseling session she was put on two different mind-altering drugs. Critics of the mental-health profession's growing reliance on psychotropic remedies tell Insight they fear this may be in store for New York City's finest. Advocates say they see it as a check against crazed officers running amok.

The driving force behind the call for mandatory counseling is concern that the tragic events of Sept. 11 may linger well beyond mood depression, a normal human response to horrific events, and turn into a mental illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which may show itself months or even years after the event.

The subjective criteria for PTSD is defined by the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as: "1) the person experienced, witnessed or was confronted with an event or events that involved actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others, and 2) the person's response involved intense fear, helplessness or horror." By that definition, it could be said, all Americans who watched or saw even video footage of the attacks on the World Trade Center or the Pentagon could be "victims" of this so-called mental illness.

Under cover of getting help to those in the NYPD who may suffer breakdowns, a three-step approach has been taken to evaluate the entire force. The first is a kind of group-therapy session to encourage members of the force to discuss the events of Sept. 11 and learn about mental-health programs available to them. Step two is access to an "anonymous hot line" so those who want additional counseling can be given "confidential" appointments. And step three is a "mental-health fair" for members of the NYPD and their families who may want to discuss the events of Sept. 11.

All the mental-health professionals running this program are "volunteers" from Columbia University who will bill the New York City Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization providing $10 million for this mental-health counseling. Columbia is to keep no records on the officers who seek counseling beyond the introductory session.

Critics of this mandatory mental-health counseling tell Insight they wonder whether forcing such counseling may, in fact, be harmful. Elliot Valenstein, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Michigan, says: "I'm quite skeptical of any plan that would require mandatory counseling for all 55,000 New York City police officers. I have no doubt that there are some police officers who are emotionally unstable, overly aggressive, prejudiced, under too much stress and so forth, and some of them might benefit from counseling. But if a massive mandatory counseling program is undertaken, I view it as highly unlikely that it would attract the caliber of competent counselors who would be able to help those who need help."

Valenstein continues: "I recognize that there may be problems dealing with the events of Sept. 11, but I think mandatory counseling is not the solution. There is the possibility that a mandatory counseling program would lead to a lot of perfunctory prescriptions of medication that would not be followed up adequately for adverse side effects. For example, SSRIs [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors] tend to make some people more impulsive. This may be a good thing for depressed people, but there are obvious dangers of making people carrying weapons impulsive, and there are many other side effects of these drugs."

If NYPD officers are prescribed antidepressants, must they take them? Bill Genet, a spokesman for the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, tells Insight, "It's a very involved process, but the department's policy is that they'll decide individual cases."

On the other hand, if the mandatory counseling really is anonymous, as the program has been described, how will the department know which of its officers are taking or have refused to take mind-altering drugs? While Genet makes it clear that he was not speaking for the NYPD, he says he understands and supports the decision for counseling. "This is," he says, "about anybody dealing with a traumatic event having a reaction. Trauma is a shock, and it's a shock to all the body's systems. The thing with these emergency workers is that they shut down the bodily shock because they have to get their job done, and that's why it's called post-traumatic stress. This accumulates, and there comes a time at which it all shuts down and stops."

Tana Dineen, a licensed psychologist and author of Manufacturing Victims: What the Psychology Industry Is Doing to People, tells Insight, "I don't know why the NYPD is doing this. Other than appearing to be a civil-rights violation, it sounds like an introductory advertising session to lure in potential client/patients. The police will be told they're suffering from mental illness, and they'll be encouraged to come forward and get the help they need. There are absolutely no data to support the idea that talking about tragic events helps, but there are data that show some people are harmed by talking about it. The idea will get presented, however, that if their feelings go untreated for too long they might need help or may be developing PTSD or some other mental illness. Counselors will tell them that they can help but, in reality, people can end up ruminating more about the negative things, worrying if they have some psychological illness, and become more debilitated."

Dineen says she tends "to look at psychology as a business that needs clients and patients. The going formula is 'trauma equals victims equals patients equals profits.' These [NYPD] guys are going into a promotional session, which will lure them into the idea that they're victims, turn them into patients and create profits for the psychiatric industry. That's one of the problems with my profession — we have all the pat answers. I say don't trust the experts."

According to Dineen, "What you hear from my profession is what might go wrong if people don't get their help. We live in a therapeutic society, and we're told that everything can be fixed or cured. One of the costs to our society is that people have lost the breath of human experience — we've been convinced that we're not supposed to feel bad things. All of these feelings these people have are natural and necessary, not mental illness. I think my profession is selling some pretty dangerous answers, and people need to be warned about the dangers of some of the theories and bogus therapies that are being sold."

Ira Warheit, a Manhattan periodontist, can attest to the abuses that can occur when overzealous psychiatrists want to "help." Warheit spent three days volunteering at ground zero wherever he was needed — giving medical advice, passing out food and working on the bucket brigade. While taking a rest break at one of the staging centers around ground zero, he was confronted by a psychiatrist, Antonio Abad. They began talking, but within minutes the psychiatrist excused himself. He returned with a NYPD officer to have Warheit removed to Bellevue Hospital. "I tried to explain," Warheit says, "that there was nothing wrong with me, that I was a doctor volunteering, but the cop physically restrained me and I was transported to the psychiatric hospital." Once at Bellevue, Warheit continues, "a female doctor comes up to me and says she has some questions. I told her I'd be happy to answer her questions, but I wasn't going into the hospital. So she calls over two goons and they forcibly put me in restraints and shoot me full of Haldol."

This drugging of Warheit went on for days until he was required by law to be taken before a judge to decide if he was to be committed to the hospital. Within minutes of hearing Warheit's story, the judge released him. The respected doctor now is suing the state for wrongfully seizing and incarcerating him at Bellevue. According to Stuart Shaw, Warheit's attorney, "A claim has been filed for Ira for false arrest and false imprisonment. There is a great deal of investigating that has to be done, but it seems strange to me that a man like this would be physically restrained and injured. He committed no crime, was not trespassing and in fact was volunteering his services. It just seems to me that before a reasonable man can put another man in a straitjacket you have to really see something strange, and it just isn't so in this case."

Shaw continues: "What I'm afraid of is that Ira's case is just the tip of the iceberg. I'm afraid there may be a lot of little people — police and firemen and others that also were put in Bellevue by this guy and others like him. It could be years before we know how many were sent there, and it will be difficult to get the data because many won't want to talk about what happened, and the hospital will claim privacy rights. I've handled a lot of commitments but none of the stature of Ira. His civil rights have been violated, and my intention is to sue in federal court."

Ayal Lindeman, a volunteer emergency medical technician from Rockland County, N.Y., already had witnessed the seizure of another volunteer at ground zero when he met Warheit and learned his story. Lindeman tells Insight, "There's this doctor who was being told that he's going to the hospital, and he's saying 'I don't want to go,' and this psychiatrist gets the cops and they handcuff the poor guy and off he goes to Bellevue. This is a doctor who has been volunteering at ground zero — and this psychiatrist, Abad, is having him committed and pumped full of Haldol. It was just insanity what was happening. I was livid."

Lindeman recalls how the emergency workers felt about the presence of so many psychiatrists at ground zero. "I was sitting with these firemen and police who were on break," he says, "and this woman walks up and is handing out pamphlets for counseling services. One of the police officers stood up and told her 'Hey, we don't need you giving us these things,' and he pulled out a handful of cards he said he had been given in just a 12-hour period. These guys were glaring at this woman. They all heard about the incarceration incidents with Warheit, and another guy pipes up and says, 'If he pulls that crap with me I'll cap his ass.'"

Lindeman concludes in his heavy New York accent, "The thing is, these guys did great, they did their job. I'm sure the commissioner is doing this mandatory counseling because he loves his guys and is trying to help them. But don't do anything to harm them; don't force them into anything they don't want. Sure, there are some guys who are really hurting, but they don't have mental illnesses. They aren't crazy."

Kelly Patricia O'Meara is an investigative reporter for Insight.
@ Dr.Tana Dineen