Dr. Bruce E. Nivins, the Anthrax Case and the Stigma of Mental Illness

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Dr. Bruce E. Ivins, a microbiologist, worked at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, MD. On July 29, 2008, Dr. Ivins committed suicide, apparently as a result of the FBI investigating him as the primary suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed 5 people and sickened many others. The FBI and the United States Government state that they are now certain that he was the culprit in the tragedies that frightened the nation during the anthrax attacks.

I do not know if Dr. Ivins is indeed guilty of this crime. Rather, what concerns me is the issue that the government and press are making about Dr. Ivins’ mental health prior to, during and after the attacks. The implication, implied but never stated by the U.S. Government, is that Dr. Ivins, having committed suicide, must have been guilty. I am not suggesting that the suicide is taken as the only evidence against him. However, there is that lingering assumption or implication.


So, what is the real hidden meaning in all of this sensational news? What concerns me is the latent meaning behind the news: “He must have been guilty because he was mentally ill.”

It seems that there is no doubt that Dr. Ivins was mentally ill. He wrote many E. Mail messages(to whom I don’t know) and poems that reveal a man who struggled with paranoid delusions. He seems to have been aware of his delusions and fought with himself to control his thoughts and behaviors. He was seen by psychiatrists and treated with a variety of medications, including anti depressants as well as anti psychotics.

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Friends, family and colleagues state unequivocally that there is no way he could have mailed anthrax spores out to the nation. In addition, the very same people assert that Dr. Ivins committed suicide because he was mentally fragile and could not withstand the pressure of the FBI investigation. All of this is certainly possible.

What interests me and what I want to bring to the attention of the readers of this posting is what Dr. Richard G. Rapport, MD, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, stated after examining all of the papers connected with the case.

Dr. Rapport said:

1. Dr. Nivins appeared to exhibit psychotic characteristics.

2. “It is pretty apparent he (Dr. Nivins) had psychological problems. He may have been on the fringe where he was still able to function, even if he did not function well.”

3. Dr. Rapport also said that everyone who does this (commits murder) is not crazy.

To me, this is the most important part of the story as it now stands. It seems to me that it makes perfect sense that someone who commits murder does not have to be crazy. It was made perfectly clear to the public that Osama Ben Laden’s attack on the World Trade Center, in 2001, was not the act of a madman at all, but that of a cold and calculating terrorist and leader of a radical Islamic organization.

In other words, whether Dr. Ivins was guilty or innocent has nothing to do with the state of his mental health, in my opinion. Just because he may have been “crazy” does not mean he was necessarily guilty and just because he may have been perfectly healthy mentally does not necessarily mean he was innocent

I stress this last comment because I am always worried about the “bad rap” that the mentally ill get in the news, media and movies.

What do you think?

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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