This city’s mental health community was rocked to the core by the sexual assault and murder of a counselor last week. Melissa Hamilton, assistant director of Crossroads Counseling, was stabbed to death in her office minutes after the conclusion of her last group. For a time it was feared that her murderer was a client of the agency; this proved to be incorrect as within forty-eight hours an arrest was made in the case. The crime was described as random and opportunistic by the police; no known connection existed between the counselor and the man who is accused of her murder.
Mental health professionals of all types work in situations that by their very nature are unsafe. Confidentiality requires that the identity of clients be protected. The work of therapy is done one-on-one in the privacy and seclusion of a private office. Many therapists work in solo practices and are often at their offices late into evening hours.
This tragic death has brought into focus the struggle that all of us, not only counselors, face in the world in which we live today. What are the steps that we can take that can at least mitigate the possibility of harm? (I would add that these concerns are addressed to both men and women – both are at risk in these situations).
First and foremost, be aware of your surroundings. Take a moment to look at the situation before you leave a safe place to go to your car. Have keys at the ready if you are going to a car in a parking lot. Have a loud alarm that you can activate at a moment’s notice. If possible, do not be alone in walking to a car in a parking lot. Don’t assume that because it is daylight everything is fine. Crimes happen in daylight as well as at night.
When you are in your office at night, if alone, even with a client, lock the outside door. It is worth the trouble of being interrupted to let your next client in, if it prevents unauthorized access by an unknown person.
What if the situation in which you are with a client becomes volatile? Installing a security system of some kind that includes a panic button option may be a good solution.
Have a plan. Rehearse the plan. One of the stories from the 9/11 tragedy focused on a company whose security officer went through drills with the employees. When a crisis happens, our bodies go on automatic pilot, and if that automatic pilot has been trained to respond in certain ways, there is a much better chance of survival. The people in his company for the most part survived because of their training. It is worth having a plan and practicing it.
We don’t like to think of these things. No one wants to contemplate the possibility of being harmed. However, not thinking about it results in putting ourselves in harm’s way.
I don’t know whether anything could have prevented the tragic death suffered by Missy Hamilton. It seems the man had already entered the building before she had a chance to lock the doors. If her death can help anyone else by heightening their awareness of the need for security, perhaps a tiny bit of good can come from such a tragedy.
I live in that hope.
About Susan Hammonds-White, EdD, LPC/MHSP
Communications and relationship specialist, counselor, Imago Relationship Therapist, businesswoman, mother, proud native Nashvillian – in private practice for 30+ years. I have the privilege of helping to mend broken hearts. Contact me at http://www.susanhammondswhite.com.
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