Mental Disorder Defies Docs

by Azell Murphy Cavaan
Boston Herald
Friday, December 29, 2000

The seed that developed into a cold-blooded workplace massacre this week was likely planted in the alleged killer's mind long before his financial woes began, mental health experts said yesterday after learning Michael M. McDermott had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

Experts say there is slight indication that the illness may develop in utero as a result of genetic abnormalities.

"People have been working on this for years," Isaacs said.

"We know it's not brought on by anything like traumatic childhood experiences and we think it has to do with some kind of changes in brain activity."

Sources close to the investigation said yesterday that McDermott, a 42-year-old Marshfield native who had taken up a hermit's existence, suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and depression and had been prescribed the antidepressants Paxil, Prozac and Desyrel.

Investigators say McDermott, charged with the first-degree murder of seven co-workers at Edgewater Technology Inc., used a semiautomatic rifle and a 12-gauge shotgun in a post-Christmas Day mass killing that has been labeled the worst in recent Massachusetts history.

Investigators are still trying to determine if McDermott let loose on the rampage after an IRS dispute over owed taxes threatened to reduce his living wage to $275 every two weeks.

"Paranoid Schizophrenia is a very strange disorder," said Harold Bursztajn, a senior faculty member at Harvard Medical School and co-director of the Psychiatry and the Law program. "These people commonly suffer from delusions of persecution and it's a fixed, unshakable belief."

Symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia include a separation of emotion from cognition, social isolation, and intense states of suspicion, weariness and fear of others.

It is also common for schizophrenics to hear voices due to a static sound that experts believe a schizophrenic mind may produce.

Isaacs described the illness as tormenting.

"It's very common for sufferers to think the Army, Navy, FBI or aliens are after them," Isaacs said. "They often believe God, aliens or the devil is sending them messages via the television."

Despite experts' belief that the illness could possibly stem from a pre-natal genetic complication, psychotic symptoms routinely remain masked until late adolescence or early adulthood. And some sufferers seem to have had normal childhoods, while others have always seemed to be a bit odd, experts say.

Schizophrenia affects the entire body but is most devastating to aspects of organized thought, emotion and expression, Isaacs said, adding that schizophrenics do not sweat or blink as much as those without the illness.

"It's a fascinating illness from the outside," he said. "It's agonizing from the inside."

The most common of psychotic disorders, schizophrenia affects nearly 2.7 million Americans, according to industry figures. And there is no known cure. But despite the mystery surrounding the illness, experts say they know enough about it to treat the disorder in most cases. Antipsychotic drugs such as neuroleptics are often prescribed, mental health experts said yesterday.

"It's very rare for someone who is treated correctly to do anything (like shoot up a place)," said Jeremy Kisch, senior director for clinical education at the National Mental Health Association in Virginia.

"With the right medical treatment and therapy you can usually lead a normal life."

Experts said doctors may have treated McDermott for depression with the belief that the depression was feeding his paranoid schizophrenia.

Experts speculated that McDermott may have gone off his medication over the holidays, but added that treatment of the mental illness always requires close monitoring.

"People respond to medications in different ways," Isaacs said. "The wrong combination or the wrong dosage can lead to cross effects that give great power - but not in the direction it was prescribed."