Skip to comments.Madness at Virginia Tech - Treating insanity as danger, not transgression.
Posted on 04/20/2007 8:37:03 AM PDT by madprof98
In early 21st-century America, what do you do when you encounter a severely mentally ill person?
Anyone who lives in the city knows the answer to that question you step around him on the sidewalk, you hope he doesnt hassle you, and maybe you give him some money if hes panhandling.
The authorities at Virginia Tech did their own version of this urban shuffle in their handling of Cho Seung-Hui. Its obviously much easier to realize that someone is dangerously deranged after he has killed 32 people than when dealing with uncertain knowledge in an environment where any wrong (or even correct) move means a lawsuit. But Virginia Tech often tiptoed around Chos mental disturbance.
When his poetry was read aloud in a class, it was so terrifying that at the next meeting of the class only seven of 70 students showed up. Cho was removed from that class, and another professor began to tutor him one-on-one, but only after establishing a secret code word with her assistant to signal when she should call security.
Another alarmed professor went to her dean with worries about Cho. She was told that nothing could be done, so he was simply placed off to the side of the seminar, where he said nothing and his disturbing writings werent read aloud. This is a microcosm of how weve handled many of the mentally ill during the great deinstitutionalization of the past 30 years, when they have been left to their own devices and often to the streets or prison rather than treated.
There are many reasons for this the rise of psychotropic drugs, budget cuts, expanded conceptions of civil rights but one intellectual current behind the trend was a moral disempowerment of sanity. One of the most influential academics of the late 20th century, Michel Foucault, argued that attempts to label and treat madness were inherently arbitrary and repressive. Academia has been celebrating transgression ever since.
Any attempt to romanticize madness has an incontrovertible answer in Cho Seung-Hui. This is what madness truly is: lonely, painful, shattering, and potentially murderous. After seeing the sick trail of misery left by such transgression, can we expend some of the same intellectual energy honoring wholesome normality?
Behind some of the plaints of Virginia Tech staff that nothing could be done about Cho, you can hear the undercurrent: Who were we to judge? Of course, if he had occasionally uttered racial slurs rather than frightening those around him with bizarre behavior, the full apparatus of administrative power at Virginia Tech would have been brought down on him.
But Virginia Tech also had to cope with an extremely strict state commitment law that requires that someone represent an imminent danger to himself or others before he can be compelled to seek treatment. A judge ruled in 2005 that Cho met this standard, but nothing much came of it (although he reportedly was on an antidepressant). Virginia hasnt caught up to other states that have begun to recover from the excesses of deinstitutionalization and have made it easier to compel treatment.
According to an extensive survey in the New York Times a few years ago, about half of rampage killings are committed by mentally ill people, a much higher percentage than the roughly five percent that commit all murders. Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, president of the Virginia-based Treatment Advocacy Center, believes there has been a rise in such killings in the past 20 years, which coincides with the period when we have dumped many severely mental ill people out into society without treating them.
There is, of course, a balance to be struck between civil liberties and treating the mentally ill. But that balance is now badly off-kilter. Cho Seung-Hui was basically abandoned to his private mental hell at Virginia Tech. While he hatched his lunatic and hateful plot, everyone tried to ignore the scary guy in class behind the sunglasses.
© 2007 by King Features Syndicate
Can someone help me understand the last part of this sentence. Does this article claim that 5% of people are murderers? Or that 5% of murders are rampage murders of which 50% are committed by the mentally ill?
You said — “I sent a note about my own experience to Rich Lowry at The Corner.”
Can you also include that portion of your e-mail here on Free Republic? It would be nice to do that...
I think it means that 5% of murders are committed by mentally ill people, while about 50% of rampage murders are committed by the mentally ill.
It's a confusing sentence, but since the 5% cannot possibly refer to the percentage of killers in the population, I assume he's saying that although only 5% of killers are judged mentally ill, half of all rampage killings are done by those judged mentally ill.
I couldn’t agree more with Lowry. Anyone who works in this field can tell you that it is a revolving door of psychos and nuts who are in and out of the hospitals, in and out of taking their drugs and we, normal society, have to take it in the shorts when one of these crazies decides to go off. This is the true national scandal.
The do-gooders decided to let these people out on the streets and out of the looney bins and this is the result. We have met the enemy and it is us, for allowing this farce to continue unabated. There is no way a psycho like Cho should have ever been granted a gun permit in his lifetime. This “privacy” and “rights” is a ticking time bomb that will plague our society until we get our priorties straightened out.
As best I can determine, it is illegal to set a fire in a residential building in Virginia. And even if it werent, only the brainless liberal twits who run Tech would maintain that a person who sets a fire in the dorm is not an imminent danger.
I'm looking forward to hearing Tech's explanation as to why nothing was done about his fire-setting. It should be a doozie.
Right at the time the deinstitutional thing was starting, my father was diagnosed as a nervous breakdown. After a year in a state hospital, he was sent home where they thought he would get better being around his family [with three small children].
He couldn’t take the noise of small children, got violent by throwing things around, then started loading his gun. Mom shoved us all out the back door grabbing coats on the way as dad was in another room with his gun.
We walked four miles through deep snow [through fields hoping dad couldn’t find us] to the farmhouse of friends.
When next we saw dad, he confessed that he intended to kill all of us so was put back in the hospital for a year.
The doctors never told us what was wrong with him. We found out 40 years later it was paranoid schizophrenia after he tried to kill my mother twice and threatened a neighbor with a gun.
Before he got sick he was very mild and loving, never violent.
We never had a chance to protect ourselves and didn’t know what was wrong with him all those years when he was turned loose on society. He had a psychotic break at work on three different occasions and no one who was there will tell us what he did. We sure didn’t know what to do to help him, save tiptoe around the house and never make noise because he couldn’t take it.
I think the doctors who handle patients like this don’t know what they are doing. They ought to have to live with their patients, maybe they’d have compassion on family members.
We [my surviving brother and I] ended up putting him in a nursing home where he was locked up and had no guns. We had to protect others even though no one protected us.
As to the Virginia Tech shooter, it is more of the same. No one knows what to do so they do nothing, turn them loose, someone else’s problem.
Several years ago, I had a "Cho" student in my class at a public community college. When I would step out of the room, he'd approach female students and make menacing remarks to them. This went on repeatedly before one of them sheepishly mentioned it to me, but by then, I had realized this student was seriously mentally unstable.
When I approached the VP for Academic Affairs, I was told that the student had the right to remain in the class for which he had registered and that even his grade could not be affected by behavior not specifically mentioned in the syllabus. After I threw a Nikki Giovanni fit, I was allowed to offer the student private tutoring (on my own time) instead of in-class lessons. Like Cho's tutor, I chose a very public space for the tutoring. Finally, I just gave the guy a B so I would not have to deal with him anymore.
I'm sure this has happened many times in many academic settings. It is so awful for everyone, perhaps even for the disturbed student. It is especially awful when the student subsequently engages in violence, as my student did. After a gun incident on campus, he was dismissed from school. Not long afterwards, he slashed a girlfriend and was incarcerated. It's a wonder that did not happen on campus
Excellent way of putting it. I remember going to some stupid talk by a literary lion in NYC in the 70s where he exclaimed breathlessly that "only the mad were truly sane."
You have my sympathies. I have some horror stories from my childhood like that, too. The terrible things that the mentally ill do to their own families are never taken into account by the psychiatric profession.
My mom had a mental breakdown about 20 years ago. It got so bad that my dad finally called the police and had her put in a mental institution. The thing is that was only good for a few days. She was the one that had to commit herself. Thank God, she did. She was diagnosed as manic depressive and put on lithium.
A few years later, she decided she didn’t really need the lithium and she got off of it. The whole cycle started again. Thank God, my dad and brothers (I was in a different state) convinced her to go to the hospital.
However, if she doesn’t want to commit herself and she doesn’t take her medication it is a huge hassle to try to commit her. Family members have to hire a lawyer and go to court and it is a huge financial and time burden. I don’t think many non-family members would be able to do much unless a person has already committed a crime.
I don’t know quite the correct way to handle it.
It must have been gut-wrenching to make that decision, but it was the responsible one.
Speaking of responsibility, VT, the doctor who evaluated him, and the law may share blame in Cho's case, but what of his family? From the anecdotal evidence thus far -- his grandparents, neighbors, schoolmates -- he was apparently troubled even as a small child. You have to wonder if his parents ever attempted to get him professional help, or to make the hard decision to have him hospitalized.
My father killed himself and had been contemplating killing some or all of us children too. He practised suicide several times; he wrote everything down in his diary, which I read. His parents took him to a psychiatrist who did not/could not commit him; I don’t know if they read the diary, but they left us alone with him sometimes. This was in 1973. Paranoia and depression were normal in some circles - part of the anti-establishment world-view.
I think a lot of mental health professionals believe that extreme alienation from society is often just and reasonable, because society is so unjust.
It’s not just the mental health professionals, it’s the sociologists and the ACLU lawyers; all the left-wingers who shaped our “liberty for the insane” policy.
I also think that psychiatrist think that medication is the answer for every single problem. In some cases it is, and others it isn’t.
It’s also kind of scary to think that you have to medicate someone the rest of their lives.
My mom is on lithium, and it is helping her. She’s fairly normal on it (and a total loon without it).
My 10 year old daughter has brain damage and had terrible tantrums when she was younger. She couldn’t talk and got frustrated. She had impulse and sensory problems. Everything combined, and she would just meltdown. Well, I went to a psychologist and the first thing she wanted to try was medication. I didn’t go that route. Now at 10, my daughter is doing much better. She’ll still hit me (and her siblings) when she gets mad, but she’ll stop and get control of herself. She’s learning how to control her anger much better, plus she can talk some now. She can also write, and that helps her to vent. I’d much rather her learn how to handle her impulses and anger without medication, than to live on medication that suppresses those impulses.
Airlines are probably chartering flights of lawyers into VT/Montgomery Exec Airport as we speak. It’ll make DukeLax look like a moot court at law school.
I put up a post a couple days ago asking the lawyers here to comment on whether lawsuits would be possible given the concept of sovereign immunity. From what I understand, Virginia has been the stingiest of all states about passing laws that waive this immunity.
Anyway, no one answered me so I am still in the dark about how immune Tech is from lawsuits. I have a feeling that if it is truly immune, the legislature is going to have to do something for the victims families.
But I am sure you are right that the lawyers are on it as we post.
Where would we be today if Jesus (the first teacher) simply said lock 'em up and give 'em pills?
A teacher and many students died in tthis massacre.
As long as teachers are persecuted the teacher and all of his or her modern day lambs will be slaughtered if John Q. Public almost helps by mandating what everyone shold do.
Why is the legislature going to have to do something for the victim’s families, and should that apply to all crime victims and/or families thereof, or just the ones that result from some sort of institutional negligence?
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