April 23, 2007
This past Friday (April 20, 2007), the family of the
Virginia Tech shooter issued a statement.
" 'We are humbled by this darkness. We feel hopeless,
helpless and lost. This is someone that I grew up with and
loved. Now I feel like I didn't know this person,' Cho's
sister said. 'We have always been a close, peaceful and
loving family. My brother was quiet and reserved, yet
struggled to fit in. We never could have envisioned that he
was capable of so much violence.' "
His family knew that he was struggling. They didn't know
how much. They loved him. They wanted to help him. Over the
years, they had tried to do what they could. Many people
who encountered Cho were concerned. Many people saw the
need and tried to help.
"In December 2005, [Andy Koch, who was Cho's suitemate last
year] called police to say that his suitemate seemed
suicidal. Officers went to speak with Cho. He was referred
to the local mental health center, and then sent to a
psychiatric care hospital. Here was Cho, safely away from
campus, in the arms of the mental health system. ... A day
or two later, he was released and returned to campus.
Virginia Tech officials say his care was out of their
hands, and they could not know that he needed more help.
How could anyone know how much help he needed? We can only
see into the minds of others as much as they allow. It can
be difficult to tell when "thinking outside the box"
crosses a line and becomes a threat. What should be
considered a cry for help, and what can/ should be done to
answer that cry?
"The massacre at Virginia Tech has sparked an intense
debate over how to deal with mental illness and how best to
protect society from people with violent tendencies. ...
[W]hile some are calling for a reform of the mental health
system and the expulsion of disturbed students, experts say
the solution is not that simple. Strange behavior is not
sufficient to force a student into counseling, and even the
best practitioners cannot always predict when a patient has
become a danger to themselves or to others, experts said.
'There can be signs, but it's not a crime to be odd.' "
"Strange behavior is not sufficient to force a student into
"It's not a crime to be odd."
Where is the line that marks when "strange" and "odd"
behavior should be considered "threatening" or "dangerous"?
" 'I don't think at the time you could have said he's
definitely going to shoot someone. But we had talked about
he was likely to do that if there was someone that was
going to do it,' says Andy Koch ... 'The first thing I
thought of Monday was Seung ... and if that's the first
thing you think about, there were definitely some things
that we should have done,' he says. But 'I don't know what
we could have done.'
"But 'I don't know what we could have done."
What can be done? What should be done?
"When George Washington University and New York's Hunter
College expelled students who appeared suicidal, the
students sued. Schools have to 'balance the rights of
students with the rights of the communities and with what
parents want, and its not an easy thing to do,' says Dr.
Joanna Locke of the Jed Foundation, which works to prevent
suicide and promote mental health among college students."
It is a fine line to walk, and a difficult balance to find.
Not all students who are mentally ill pose a threat, and
some say that not all students who pose a threat are mentally ill.
"Despite media reports, Cho Seung Hui, the shooter in the
tragedy, may not actually have had a serious mental illness
relative to other diagnoses. But the possibility opens the
door for reflection on the nature of mental illnesses--what
they are and what they are not--with regard to symptoms,
treatment and risks of violence. The U.S. Surgeon General
has reported that the likelihood of violence by people with
mental illness is low. In fact, 'the overall contribution
of mental disorders to the total level of violence in
society is exceptionally small.' More often, people living
with mental illness are the victims of violence. Severe
mental illnesses are medical illnesses. They are different
from episodic conditions. They are different from
sociopathic disorders. Acts of violence are exceptional.
Treatment works, but only if a person gets it."
National Alliance on Mental Illness
There are those who consider anything outside the norm to
be some sort of mental illness. Then there are those who
consider mental illnesses to be only the most severe
"Mental illness is a term rooted in history that refers
collectively to all of the diagnosable mental disorders.
Mental disorders are characterized by abnormalities in
cognition, emotion or mood, or the highest integrative
aspects of behavior, such as social interactions or
planning of future activities. These mental functions are
all mediated by the brain. It is, in fact, a core tenet of
modern science that behavior and our subjective mental
lives reflect the overall workings of the brain. Thus,
symptoms related to behavior or our mental lives clearly
reflect variations or abnormalities in brain function. On
the more difficult side of the ledger are the terms
disorder, disease, or illness. ... Moreover, the
manifestations of mental disorders vary with age, gender,
race, and culture. The thresholds of mental illness or
disorder have, indeed, been set by convention, but the fact
is that this gray zone is no different from any other area
Once again, there are questions. There is a gray area.
There are many questions people have about what should have
been done, and what can be done to prevent such a tragedy
from happening again.
As was the case in many universities across the country
last week, students and teachers at Colorado University
spent class time discussing the events at Virginia Tech.
"On Tuesday [April 17, 2007], a student at Colorado
University was arrested on charges of interference with
faculty, staff and students when others felt threatend
after he reportedly made sympathetic remarks about Virginia
Tech shooter during a class discussion of the rampage and
said there were things at Colorado University that made him
angry enough to kill people. Max Karson was arraigned, his
father posted $1,000 bond and was barred from campus and
could face up to six months in jail if convicted on the
misdemeanor charge. Is this a call for help? A danger to
Or is it, as Karson's father put it, simply a bit of free
speech. 'If a major university means anything, it means
free exchange of ideas,' Michael Karson told the campus
newspaper, 'Max was arrested for making intellectual
comments to an academic discussion. I don't think you
should be able to arrest a kid for expressing his views.' "
Where is the line? If all students who at one point were
frustrated with their fellow classmates and/ or were
struggling with a mental health issue were to be removed
from school, the schools would be significantly less
"While mass shootings are rare, a large number of students
have mental health problems and practitioners say there are
not enough resources to help them all. Nearly 18 percent of
college students say they suffer from depression and 12
percent say they suffer from anxiety, according to a recent
study by the American College Health Association. Even more
disturbing is that nine percent of college students said
they had seriously considered suicide and one percent had
tried to kill themselves in the past year. In addition to
safety concerns, administrators have to worry about
liability. More universities have begun forcing suicidal
students to withdraw following a 2003 lawsuit by the
parents of an MIT student who committed suicide.
But that can also lead to lawsuits: George Washington
University recently paid a settlement to a student it
suspended after he sought help for depression when he
claimed the school violated federal disability laws.
The goal is not (or should not be) to discourage those who
need help from seeking it. The goal is not (or should not
be) to discourage free speech.
Where is the line between free speech and a threat? It
seems as though it used to be much more clear than it is
Few will argue that the goal is to have safe schools --
schools where students feel safe expressing their insights
and needs, and schools where others still feel safe after
hearing what these students have shared.
Questions of the Week:
How can schools "'balance the rights of students with the
rights of the communities and with what parents want"? Is
it possible? What can be done to help schools do a better
job of balancing the rights and needs of those they serve?
How can students determine what role they play in helping
their school be a safe place that balances their rights and
needs with the rights and needs of all students?
Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.
I look forward to reading
what you have to say.
Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum