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The Lamberts Suffer Tragedy, Now Take Action

Nearly a year ago, a tragic story unfolded as Danielle and Ken Lambert handed their two children — a 5 year old daughter and a 4 year old son — over to Danielle’s twin sister, Marcelle Thibault, to drive them to a sleepover. They never made it there alive, as Thibault crossed the median of a busy interstate highway in her car, stopped it in the wrong direction, undressed herself and the two children, and then ran them into the oncoming traffic, to all three of their deaths.

Now the Lamberts want justice and to prevent this bizarre incident from happening to another family. But given the complete and utter random bizarreness of the incident, it’s a tragedy unlikely to unfold in anyone else’s home anytime soon. The article in today’s Boston Globe lays out the story:

“If she got the help she needed, this wouldn’t have happened,” Danielle Lambert said. “My sister was a good person. She was my best friend. I know she wouldn’t have done that intentionally.” […]

The Lamberts, in the interview, said McLean doctors should not have discharged Thibault after six days; Thibault, they said, was still delusional and believed God had sent her to the hospital to help other patients. Danielle Lambert and another sister, Stacey Coady, also said McLean staff never told the family at a meeting before Thibault’s discharge that she was at risk to kill herself or someone else.

The case comes down to the fact that two things stand out. One, she was treated for nearly a week, 4 months prior to the event, at McLean Hospital, a prestigious psychiatric hospital outside of Boston. There she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, placed on appropriate medication, and was recommended to continue treatment on an outpatient basis. She was likely not considered a danger to herself or others at the time by the mental health professionals who treated her, so that’s likely why nobody was told she was. No offense, but someone who has delusions and believes they are put on Earth to “help other patients” is not exactly someone who screams out, “I’m suicidal or homicidal.” They are just as likely to be seen as harmless (since there’s absolutely zero research or data to show someone who is delusional is at greater risk to harm others).

The second concern happened the same night Thibault went to pick up the children. She stopped in the very same median a few hours earlier, and got out of her car. A Good Samaritan stopped to see if she needed assistance, and she started throwing punches at him. State Police arrived at the scene and talked to Thibault and made the determination that although her behavior was erratic, it didn’t arise to a serious enough level to consider taking her into custody for a psychiatric evaluation.

Now in 20/20 hindsight, everyone sees that the tragedy may have prevented had the police taken her into custody instead of letting her go on her way. But these are judgment calls made in the moment with little evidence to go on outside of the way the person is behaving. If we start second-guessing every such call, we prevent police from carrying out their daily jobs. And in America, police are right to err on allowing someone their Constitutional rights to freedom and her personal liberty. After all, it’s not against the law to act “weird” or even “erratic.” We may think these are signs of something more dark and sinister, but in 99.9% of the cases, they are not.

So do we therefore make new laws and demands on institutions and the government to protect us in these 0.01% of cases? I hope not.

We Can’t Legislate Bizarre Behavior

We also cannot (or generally should not) force people into outpatient treatment — or any kind of treatment — if they are not an immediate danger to themselves or others. McLean’s clinicians apparently didn’t think she was and that’s why she was released. And indeed, while followup care should dictate a certain measure of ensuring people are adhering to their treatment regimen, in a free society, such as ours, we cannot demand that they do so.

Adding to the evidence that Thibault exhibited no previously threatening or deadly behaviors, she was out of treatment for four months and in constant contact with her own twin sister. If one’s own twin sister couldn’t detect anything was seriously wrong with her, what makes anyone think a clinician spending an hour (or even a few hours over the course of six days) with a stranger can do better?

We can’t legislate against irrational, in-the-moment behavior. We can’t prevent people acting in a bizarre manner when they had no previous indication they might be capable of such a tragic and extreme act. And we can’t hold mental health professionals, institutions or the police to some impossible, ideal standard of being able to look into a crystal ball and see inside a person’s mind what their true intents are.

Nonprofit Group Started from Tragedy

Outside of the likely lawsuit the Lamberts seem prepared to file, they are attempting to do some good with their grief:

The Lamberts have started a nonprofit group, Keep Sound Minds – www.keepsoundminds.org – and want to change how police officers respond to individuals exhibiting serious mental illness. The organization, which is holding a fund-raiser March 28 at the Sheraton Boston Hotel, also wants to change how psychiatric hospitals discharge patients, including requirements to discuss risks of suicide and homicide with family members and to make sure patients get outpatient treatment.

Great. Except that I’ll point out that mental health professionals have no special expertise in assessing violence, suicidal or homicidal risk in patients, because we have no reliable indicators for predicting such behavior (the most reliable indicator is a simple one anyone can use — past violent, suicidal or homicidal behavior).

Show Me Your Mental Illness ID

One other idea mentioned in the article is a horrible one, opening a can of privacy worms that would likely result in no better outcomes — and take away the mental health privacy rights of tens of millions of Americans:

Thibault’s husband, Michael, an EMC Corp. employee who met his wife at Bellingham High School, said it might be a good idea for police to have access to a database of individuals who had been committed to psychiatric hospitals, despite the inherent privacy concerns.

Yeah, no thanks, I’ll pass on that. Mental illness ,without the presence of a co-existing substance abuse problem, is no greater risk factor for violence than in the general population (as I’ve noted previously here and here and here). So although we think more information would be more helpful in questionable situations, it actually would just feed the prejudice and stigmatization that already exists about people who have been diagnosed at one time with a mental disorder.

* * *

I sympathize with the feeling of the need to “do something” after a tragedy like this. Words can’t express the depths of their despair, I’m sure. But sometimes the best thing you can do is honor the children’s memory and help educate others about the lack of a comprehensive mental health system in this country that may have helped someone like Thibault receiving ongoing, continuous followup.

Read the full article: Finding words at last for an unspeakable loss – The Boston Globe

The Lamberts Suffer Tragedy, Now Take Action

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.


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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). The Lamberts Suffer Tragedy, Now Take Action. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 10, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/the-lamberts-suffer-tragedy-now-take-action/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 7 Dec 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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