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Difficult Process? Psych evaluations ordered by police, courts

Questions about what happened with the psych exam for the Buffalo mass shooting suspect.

BUFFALO, N.Y. — While investigators examine the background of the suspect in this horrific event in Buffalo there are questions about the reports of his past involvement with police and the mental health system. 

2 On Your Side spoke with a local psychiatrist who knows how the system is supposed to work but must also deal with sometimes overwhelming numbers. 

"It's easy to look backward and say 'Wow - you know there were warning signs - but it's very, very complex."  That comment from Dr. Michael Cummings, a psychiatrist and Associate Medical Director of ECMC, says up to 3,000 patients a year may be ordered by police or the courts to the one of the busiest psych ERs in the state at ECMC for a psychiatric exam.

So with published reports that the 18-year-old suspect was checked out by state police and a psych center after his murder/suicide threats last summer at his Broome County High School. 2 On Your Side asked for Dr. Cumming's response. 

He stressed he had no direct knowledge of the suspect or his past history but did point out that, "While it would be easy to say we should have picked up on something and followed this person over time to prevent something...we'd be talking about doing that to over 100 - thousand individuals."

Cummings adds, "If you look at past ones - like the Las Vegas shooter - some of the other ones - most of these people would not come up on most folks' radar. They may have had touches with mental health, they may have had touches with law enforcement but they're not obvious people that you look at and say - oh this is a guy we have to track."

He also says, "Numerous social media posts talk about pure evil and you can see it in someone's eyes and all that stuff. I'd like to think we could predict that - being someone who's somewhat of an expert about that. But that's very, very difficult to predict the behavior of one human being based on  a psychiatric evaluation or their history."

Then there are reports that this individual wrote he was bored during the pandemic in his high school years with a school shutdown and went to the internet. Cummings says there is an overall concern about what some young people were dealing with. 

"They're socially isolated from friends and they're feeling disenfranchised. And again I don't know anything about this individual's developmental history - you know that puts them at risk for being skewed by groups where they feel a sense of belonging."

Cummings stresses the vast majority of people with mental health issues are not violent and often become victims themselves.

Without knowing the exact details of this case, Cummings says he hopes overall for more of a focus on mental health with resources to do the job. He notes that more people end up with a general disability diagnosis of major depression than cases of cancer and heart disease combined.   

As Cummings sums it up.

 "If we take care of our population better than we're doing right now and then hopefully more and more of these cases get caught in that safety net." But he adds "You know there's always gonna be that individual  - someone who wants to do something awful and they're organized and they have the means, financial means to do so. That's a very, very difficult thing to stop."  

Shifting to the overall healing process for the victims' families and friends and the overall community, Dr. Cummings projects difficult days ahead even for a city that can handle various disappointments and weather issues.

Of course, this is much different. While this area is well known for its resilient bounce-back attitude, the future after something like this will still present challenges. 

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So at ECMC's Behavioral Health Services and other mental health care providers in the area, they are well aware of the work ahead. Dr.Cummings says "They'll be a lot of individuals who have formal PTSD from this, have signs that are sub-clinical. But just a lot of folks taking one more moment to think am I gonna go through my grocery store today? Do I feel comfortable going out there? Is there something I have to worry about? And you know we've already been a society under a huge amount of stress during COVID. And this on top of it - it's gonna take a lot of work by our community stakeholders, you know our mental health providers, our schools, our churches, our local county, and local city government."

Cummings says the Presidential visit is now over and national media attention may start to taper off. 

But Dr. Cummings points out we are actually in the midst of National Mental Health Month. He says "I don't want to seem so jaded to say it's a sound bite right?. I mean it's an important sound bite to have. But the proof of the pudding is what happens when everyone leaves town. When the politicians leave town hopefully they'll remember those promises when it comes time to fund hospitals, community mental health, social services...things that really do make our community more resilient."

 

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