VA Tech Tragedy and Mental Illness
In the comments section of my post on the horrible VA Tech killings, Looney, a semi-regular commenter, brought up the role of mental illness and specifically the rights of the mentally ill (which he placed in quotation marks). Because I am not familiar with the case he uses as an example, I won’t mention it, and we are still discovering things about Cho Seung-Hui, the killer-suicide at VA Tech, so I will try very hard not to rush to judgment. But it does seem clear that he had some form of mental illness and that teachers and fellow students had both noticed alarming signs and tried to warn authorities of them. However, absent specific threats or indications that a person is a danger to himself and/or others, trying to force said person into therapy or an institutional setting is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Looney seems to indicate (correct me if I am wrong) that he would repeal or amend the ADA and restrict the rights of the mentally ill. But before we rush headlong into that direction, let’s remember how the mentally ill were treated in this (and other) societies before the ADA and similar measures. AND, let’s remember that while certain mental illnesses can increase aggression and, thus, the likelihood of violence to self or others, this is a very small increase. Alcohol and drug abuse lead to violence far more often than even severe mental illness. The vast number of acts of violence are carried out by people without any mental illness and the vast number of mentally ill never harm themselves or others–and this is true even about people who are depressed, schizophrenic, bi-polar, or have other conditions wherein they have suicidal or homicidal thoughts. Here, I speak not just from looking at the data, but from personal experience. I have a tendency toward clinical depression and control this with medication. Prior to my diagnosis and treatment, I had literally YEARS of suicidal thoughts and (more rarely) thoughts of violence toward others. I didn’t act on them, at least in part, because I am a Christian and have moral convictions against harming myself or others. (Had my illness been more severe or I not found treatment, I have no idea whether these theological and moral convictions would have been sufficient to prevent me from harming myself or others and I pray I never find out.)
Prior to the passages of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we often forcibly hospitalized people who weren’t mentally ill at all (see the movie, Frances, a true story for which Jessica Lange was nominated for an Oscar). Family members or employers had people committed for bogus reasons in order to control their money or for other reasons. People were lobotomized, given electro-shock therapy, and other forms of torture disguised as treatment. We need to be able to protect society from dangerous individuals, including those with mental illness, but we must be careful not to start locking up large numbers of people in order to try to stop the small number of dangerous ones.
There are no easy answers. Law is a blunt instrument, but churches have difficulty responding in gospel-centered ways to the mentally ill, too. The congregation I attend, because of its ministry to homeless folks over the years, deals with more than the usual number of “mental health consumers” (as one such puts it) in most churches I have known. (If you don’t have mental illness before you are homeless, time on the streets is likely to change that!) One former member, not homeless, who suffered extremely (schizophrenia, I believe, but I am no doctor) was both a great blessing and a great challenge to us. He had been quite brilliant before the onset of his illness, then had to be institutionalized for awhile, and made some recovery–but never full. Eventually, he made threats against some church members that we felt compelled to take seriously. After much discussion with his family members (who were afraid of him) and his counselor, we felt compelled to sever our relationship and to take out a restraining order forbidding him to come near any of us or the church property. It was not a decision we made lightly and some of us were never sure we did the right thing. Some months later, this man committed suicide. We have never been sure that our expulsion was not a factor. We regard this as a failure to have found a redeeming path and it troubles our membership still. Even those he threatened cried when he died. We are glad that he did not harm others before he killed himself, but it is cold comfort.
So, here is an area where neither law nor the gospel ministries of the church availed. We need far more help for those with mental illness. There have been cases where some who knew they might become dangerous sought help and had to wait in line (that’s “que up” for the Brits out there) for an opening in a mental health facility. If some readers do not want to see more government money available for mental health, then they better start working to see that more church-related and private facilities fill the gaps. Do you realize that most health insurance policies in the U.S. STILL do not even cover mental health? (Fortunately, mine does or I could not afford my anti-depressant meds.)
Returning to Blacksburg, VA: Because the number of mental health consumers who become violent are so few (even of people who write things like Cho Seung-Wi did), it is exceedingly difficult to know for sure who will and who will not pose a real danger until after the fact. In this case, the danger signs were real and, it appears (with what has been revealed so far) that many individuals noticed and made all the right referrals to the authorities. Perhaps the authorities failed to act when they should have or perhaps not. I reserve judgment until more facts are known. Maybe a Christian church’s outreach program could have made a difference. However, I still maintain that if it were harder to obtain guns in this nation (and Kentucky, where I live, has looser restrictions than Virginia), it would have been harder for Cho to commit this tragedy. Armed with a knife, he might have killed one or even two, but not 32 persons. (And, in the case of my former church member, how was it that someone who had been institutionalized could legally obtain the gun he used to commit suicide?)
These and many more questions remain. I continue to pray for all those in Blacksburg and all related to this university–whose name will now become a synonymn for violence like “Columbine High School” is. I give a special prayer to Korean-Americans and Koreans in America who are feeling increased hostility because of Cho’s nationality/ethnicity. And I pray that we work harder to help the mentally ill–whatever role churches should play in this.
P.S.–Some have pointed out that this many civilians are dying daily in Iraq and question whether Americans feel that only our lives count. I do not draw this conclusion–even in the midst of their own grief, the faculty and students of VA Tech placed their suffering in global contexts. I didn’t hear anyone questioning whether the British cared only for their own in the wake of the London subway bombings, or the Australians after the Bali, Indonesia bombings. Why assume that U.S. Americans ignore the plight of others when grieving over our own tragedies?
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