Turning malice on the palace

ROBERT Pate gave Queen Victoria a black eye when he struck her with a brass-topped cane in her carriage in 1850.
He pleaded insanity at his trial, and the judge told him he was tempted to accept the plea because “I would fain believe . . . that no man but a madman would attack the most gracious sovereign of this country. I believe it is as great a proof of insanity as it is possible for a person to give.”
A new study into attacks on Britain’s royal family, co-authored by a Melbourne psychiatrist, has concluded that the judge was right: most attacks on royals that result in injury are committed by people who are deluded or psychotic, rather than activists pursuing political aims.
The study was part of research commissioned by the British Home Office to try to discover how to weed out potential assassins from harmless eccentrics.
“The Queen alone has at any one time literally hundreds of people who are raising concern by inappropriate behaviour such as attempts to enter the royal palaces, threats or sending bizarre communications,” says Professor Paul Mullen, co-author of the study. He said 70% of those people had a serious mental illness, the royal family being a magnet for the insane.
Professor Mullen is clinical director of Victoria’s Institute of Forensic Mental Health and an international expert on stalkers.
He and two colleagues, one based in London, were given access to files of Britain’s Royalty Protection Police and its Parliamentary Protective Services. Their preliminary research is part of an article with other authors entitled “Attacks on the British Royal Family: The role of Psychotic Illness”, published in the current Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.
Twenty-three attacks were studied between 1778 and 1994. Nearly half the attackers studied were vengeful teenage males wanting to punish a rejecting world, and they shared characteristics with boys who have committed high school shootings in the US.
Professor Mullen says very few people with mental illness are dangerous, but those mentally ill people who pursue the famous have proved more dangerous than those with a political axe to grind.
The study concluded there was little chance of identifying a high-risk group among all the disordered people stalking public figures.
It recommended instead that authorities assess the level of psychiatric disorder in individual stalkers and get them into treatment where necessary.

First published in The Age.