As you may or may not know, May is National Mental Health Awareness month. While I don’t work directly in this field, my colleagues and I frequently uncover mental health-related findings during background investigations, especially those conducted in conjunction with and in support of our Threat and Violence Risk Management team, or TVRM for short. Among the many services our TVRM team provides are behavioral threat assessments, led in part by our in-house licensed forensic and clinical psychologist Dr. Mark Brenzinger. These threat assessments generally involve high-stakes, sensitive situations that require an indirect threat assessment or a direct violence risk evaluation.
Connecting the Dots: Using Public Records and Social Media
It may surprise you to learn that we often see an individual’s mental health-related issues reflected in social media as well as public records – you just need to know how and where to look. Because of our familiarity with public records and our reviewing them on a daily basis, we are experts at this. The same goes for our social media savviness. This mental-health paper trail is why a background investigation of a subject of interest is vitally important and goes hand-in-hand with Dr. Brenzinger’s assessment of a subject – because what we find on the public record and in social media is often a treasure trove of information that helps us connect dots and understand more about the subject, his or her current personal situation (health, family, finances, to name a few), life stressors, personal interests, recent behaviors and activities.
11 Real-Life Cases: Mental Illness, Public Records and Social Media
Below are examples of actual cases in which public records and social media pertaining to a subject’s mental health shed new light on our investigation. These are just a few examples that we as investigators have identified and provided to Dr. Brenzinger and his team to use as intelligence and insight as they assess a person’s threat level.
- From a petition filed in court, we found that a subject’s spouse and another family member sought temporary restraining orders against the subject who they described as having brain surgery some years prior after which there were periodic hospitalizations, including more than a year in a mental health facility. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was suicidal, according to the family member’s petition.
- From a petition filed in a bankruptcy proceeding we saw a number of psychologists and social workers listed as creditors. As an aside, we might also see a subject disclose a firearm or other weapon among assets listed in a bankruptcy filing, which also would be a key piece of intelligence.
- While combing through a subject’s social media posts (or posts from others about the subject) we have found significant details describing the subject’s mental state, diagnoses and medications, and even photos of the subject’s prescriptions, medicine bottles and medical records.
- While researching someone on social media platforms we have seen the subject post selfies depicting drastic changes in appearance over a short time period. We also routinely find subjects posting under numerous alter egos or pseudonyms.
- After submitting a Freedom of Information Act request (often referred to as a FOIA) seeking records related to calls for police service to a particular residence, we uncovered numerous incidents related to a male subject with an unspecified mental health issue and an attempted suicide. Although no names were listed on the police reports, the dates listed coincided with the time period we believe the subject resided at the address.
- Civil court filings provided salient details about a mental health case that a public conservator had filed against a subject that indicated she previously was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and was in need of continued care and treatment due to, among other things, paranoid delusions.
- Other civil court filings related to a subject’s employment showed a history and pattern of missing work and included among the exhibits numerous doctors’ notes excusing her from work. Further research indicated the doctors included a neurologist and a psychiatrist.
- Court and police reports indicated a subject struggled for years with alcohol abuse and later claimed to have heard voices that caused him to harm himself.
- One subject’s social media presented us with information on her patterns and behaviors, such as posting only at certain times of the day or night, or in response to certain issues or news stories, and also provided intelligence about the subject’s motives or interests and whether they involved only our client or included others as well.
- Criminal court records for one subject indicated the court deemed him incompetent to proceed with the case due to mental illness. The court ordered the subject to undergo examination by two doctors. Later in the case the judge issued an order for the subject’s conditional release, and as part of the order the subject had to complete a 60-day residential treatment program.
- A petition for a Workplace Violence Restraining Order described in great detail two supervisors’ fear of immediate retaliation by an employee they were about to terminate after he made a threat of violence at the workplace. They described his “bizarre fixation” with one supervisor, his “increasingly bizarre behavior and threatening manner” and lengthy harassing voicemails and emails.
In the second part of this series, later this month, Dr. Brenzinger will share his insights on how he applies the range of information that can be gleaned to his assessments. Stay tuned!