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The Virginia Tech Massacre: How Do We Keep Missing The Signs?

April 18, 2007 by  
Filed under Health, News, Weekly Columns

Upland, CA ( – On a cold Monday morning in a buzzing academic community at Virginia Tech, the lives of thousands were changed drastically within a two and one-half hour period. A troubled 23 year old man acted out everyone’s worse nightmare, when he allegedly took the lives of 32 innocent students, faculty members, and staff, and then ended his tirade by taking his own life. Approximately 29 of the wounded are currently in local Virginia hospitals.

According to the Associated Press, the shooter displayed signs of mental instability. For example, he was described as “troubled,” with a past history of writings that may have raised red flags about his mental stability and overall mental well-being. He was referred to the counseling center on campus, but refused to give permission for counselors to review his writings and other pertinent documents, and he also refused to give any personal information about himself. He was also described as a loner with few if any who knew much about him. It almost appears that there were signs, although subtle, that this troubled young man could have really been in trouble and in danger of hurting himself or others.

So the question for the day is how do we keep missing the signs? Without placing blame on anyone, I think it is very easy to miss the signs and symptoms of mental illness because we tend to minimize the impact of mental illness on one’s life as well as those mentally ill people come into contact with. As we listen to the news coverage of this horrific event and other events of this nature throughout history, it is much easier to view the perpetrator as a depraved animal with a lack of regard for human life than it is to view him or her as a mentally sick individual who somehow slipped through the cracks of a faulty mental health system.

Persons who tend to be isolated and alone, easily aggravated, argumentative with odd behavior, may be suffering from clinical depression, such as bi-polar disorder that can contribute to both homicidal and suicidal thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. These individuals can also present with psychotic thinking [hearing voices] and paranoia, which can cause them to feel threatened or fearful, resulting in the need to protect oneself from the world.

Others may be suffering from a thought disorder, such as paranoid schizophrenia, and without the benefit of medication of either of those disorders, one can be at risk of harming him or herself and/or others. Thus, it is often our propensity to simply write these folks off as crazy or odd, and neglect making sure they are receiving consistent treatment for their problems. Furthermore, in a society where folks are much too busy to check up on one another, even in academic institutions where therapy has been recommended, it is easy for someone who is really sick to fly beneath the radar. When people [especially young people] are isolated and their only friend is a violent video game, they may be more at risk of acting out in violent ways, especially if they are not doing well emotionally.

What can we learn from this tragedy?

We must admit that there are people who are suffering from mental illness in our society. We continue to be in denial about the realities of mental illness, how it develops, and how it can be treated. Rather than writing hurting people off or ignoring them, we must work harder to get them the appropriate help. Once referrals have been made, good follow up must occur to make sure they are in treatment and their progress is monitored. Second, we must help people to become connected to other people. Everyone needs a good support system in order to survive. Man was not designed to live alone and those who have no one to provide them support and nurturance may be highly vulnerable to giving up hope. When one gives up hope, the chances become very slim that one will be able to exercise compassion and care for others. Third, we must do more to fight the sale of guns in our country. It is amazing to me that an already violent society makes it even more possible for unstable people to purchase tools to promote violence.

I am saddened today because of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, but I become saddened every time I hear of a senseless killing on a small or large scale, both for the victims and the perpetrators; because I know that somewhere along the line, WE KEEP MISSING THE SIGNS.

By Dr. Gloria Morrow

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