Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A True Tragedy

Virginia Tech mourners (IBTimes)
Being a college student, the recent events that occurred at Virginia Tech on Monday hit particularly close to home. The shooting deaths of more than thirty students on the Blacksburg campus at the hands of Cho Seung-Hui comes as shocking news to a nation who is exposed to daily violence through the mainstream media. As information continues to file in from various news outlets, a resounding theme is emerging: Seung-Hui was a disturbed individual. The main evidence for this is the man's plays, which describe disturbing images of violence and sexual scenes. These pieces did not go unnoticed, as the former chair of the English department at Tech pulled the student from the class he was in and taught him one-on-one to try to help him. She also referred him to psychological counseling, but was unclear whether he actually took advantage of the offer. News reports have come out saying that Seung-Hui was on prescription medication for a psychological purpose, but this was unconfirmed. If this is true, then Seung-Hui had to be seeing some kind of doctor, but it appears that it was not enough.

The point I'm trying to make here is that while Cho Seung-Hui has done a terrible, despicable thing, it is obvious that he, too, was a victim. Obviously someone who was capable of something like this is someone who needed help, and badly. To be desperate enough to cold-heartedly murder 32 people and then turn the gun on oneself is incomprehensible to believe and no matter how hard we try, we will never know how that feels. While many have pointed to administrative shortcomings - the fact that the campus was not locked down as it was when an escaped con who had killed two people was rumored to be around campus - I feel that Lucinda Roy's attempts to reach out to Seung-Hui (the aforementioned English chair) should be applauded. She saw a problem and, in addition to trying to personally help the troubled student, passed on the relevant information to police. However, because there was no explicit threat in Cho's writings, the police could do nothing. He was referred to psychological services at the college, but, as I said before, it is unclear whether or not he went.

This is where the problem lies and there is a substantial gray area that is hard to navigate. Seung-Hui needed help, there is no doubt about that, but could you make him go to counseling? According to Virginia Tech's counseling website, no. It states "In all situations counselors are NOT able to initiate contact with students. Students need to contact the Cook Counseling Center for services." Therefore, unless Seung-Hui voluntarily went to the counseling center himself, no contact could be made between the two parties. This is a problem. While Lucinda Roy is most likely very intelligent, she is not a mental health professional and thus not qualified to deal with a problem as grave as Seung-Hui's. That was a job for a counseling professional who most likely have dealt with shy, "loner" students who are reluctant to going to any type of counseling or therapy.

Cho Seung-hui (Wikipedia)
While it could very well be that Cho Seung-Hui chose to not go to counseling because he was very anti-social and very determined to not ask for help, there are some roadblocks preventing students from getting help from their university's psychological care. As was reported in Psychology Today two years ago, many colleges have become more concerned about lawsuits than student health and have resorted to kicking kids off of campus who appear to be a threat (read: depressed/suicidal). Because of high-profile lawsuits involving students who have committed suicide, many colleges feel that depressed or suicidal students are more of a liability than a person in need of help. They send them home where, as the Psychology Today article pointed out, not all students have the support system that a college can provide. Of course, there are cases in which taking a leave from a school would be beneficial for the student and, as more information surfaces about Seung-Hui's past, it seems like he should have been asked to leave the school for a bit, whether for psychological or disciplinary reasons. But the goal, at least in my mind, is that college counseling centers - and any counseling center, really - should be to get a student help before their depression/suicidal behaviors/mania/whatever you want to call it gets out of control, as it obviously did in this catastrophe. On the other end of this argument is the ideology that more lawsuits could result if those students who would normally be asked to leave due to cautionary psychological procedures stay on campus and commit suicide, because the student's families would argue that the school did not do enough to prevent the suicide. This, however, points to the tort-happy culture of America and the anger surrounding a tragedy.

Going through the Facebook groups and scrolling through photos of Virginia Tech students and families grieving, it is obvious that this tragedy is highly emotionally charged. Many may point to my comments about Cho Seung-Hui and be tempted to attack me for defending him. Let's clear up something right now: I am not defending Cho Seung-Hui's actions in any way, shape or form. I am simply saying that he was a disturbed individual who needed help that he never received. Having been an EMT in Boston for over a year, I have seen my fair share of psychologically disturbed patients, many with violent histories. I've found myself in situations in the back of an ambulance only inches away from patients who have threatened their siblings with knives or assaulted friends or family members, and beneath all of the madness and the mental illness and whatever it is that drives these people to hurt others, there is a human being. So while the cowardly acts of Seung-Hui are his and his alone, he was a man who needed help but could not receive it because he was not in the right mind to submit himself to counseling, which he should have done, and the staff of the counseling center were severely limited by the school's rules regarding psychological practices. While it is too late to bring back the 32 people murdered yesterday, along with the gunman, maybe these tragic events will cause some colleges to take a serious look at their psychological procedures, make some changes, and hopefully prevent such a horrible tragedy in the future.

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