Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

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?


April 20, 2007 - Posted by | the tragic


  1. “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.”

    I have no agenda.

    Comment by Looney | April 20, 2007

  2. One of the big problems I see happening in the wake of tragedies is that we try to look at them as lessons and try to determine how we might avoid them in the future. This isn’t a bad thing, but many times we are just trying to use the event to promote our own agendas (gun control in particular) or manufacture ways to make us feel safe.

    The truth is, we CAN’T avoid tragic events. If there were hundreds of persons with mental illnessess killing thousands, we might have a need to make drastic changes. However, making drastic changes that would impact those who really are not a danger seems a bit overboard.

    Again, I might be totally wrong here, but there are lessons to be learned. I think Michael’s approach of waiting for all the facts to come in might be helpful.

    Comment by Howie Luvzus | April 20, 2007

  3. Regarding the ps, I’m sort of baffled that anyone would criticize people for grieving more over the deaths of their own friends, classmates, community members, countrymen, etc. Granted that all of us should be more aware of what’s happening globally (especially when our own government is deeply involved as in Iraq), what kind of person doesn’t feel more intensely for those they’re connected to in special ways?

    Comment by Lee | April 20, 2007

  4. I agree with your position on guns. It makes no sense for them to be allowed.

    I have problems with addressing mental illness as if it is always some genetic issue. Do we suspect that this man was destined to be derranged from birth or is it the fact that he was neglected by society and BECAME mentally ill? Which came first?

    I think you can look to the Jesus to see how to handle this. I believe that this is the basis of how Jesus “healed” and “cast out demons”. Jesus wasn’t physically healing people but he was returning their status to society by labelling them as healed or made whole. When a leper is “healed” or a demonic possession is relieved it means the victim is returned to society and “made whole”. This man needed to be healed in the same way. Society labeled him as sick or “different” and the cure would have been for someone to claim his healing by bringing him into favor with society.

    Of course any analysis we do from our vantage point is weak because we have such little access to the real facts of this specific case.

    Comment by danutz | April 20, 2007

  5. Lee,

    I understand what you mean about grief being close to home and I basically agree. However, I don’t think the criticism is completely off the mark either. It is not that it is inappropriate for us to grieve our losses – especially when those losses are near to us, but that it is a tragedy that we do not grieve more for the losses of others, particularly when we bear responsibility for those deaths. By all means, mourn the VA Tech tragedy, but let your mourning of these victims increase your empathy for all victims.

    Furthermore, there is the matter of scale, which we ought not dismiss. Suffering is not something to be quantified, however, all human life is valuable and we should pay attention to where the most life is being lost and damaged as a matter of perspective. See this cartoon:


    Again I say, we must mourn for what happened in Virginia, but we must ALSO mourn (and perhaps we should mourn even more) for what is going on in the Sudan and Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Comment by Aric Clark | April 20, 2007

  6. The Economist just posted an article on this debate which has been happening in England for awhile. It is abreviated compared to what I would like, but it is interesting to see the flavor of discussion from the other side of the pond.


    Comment by Looney | April 20, 2007

  7. I agree with Howie and you, Michael – we have this huge desire to be able to say, “Never again,” and take actions to stop tragedies such as this. But short of locking up an awful lot of people – most of whom would never hurt anyone – it’s a tension we live with in this world.

    A valuable lesson that we can learn is that we could invest more time and energy in mental care. THAT would be a decent legacy that would have more chance of being effective, seems to me.

    Comment by Dan Trabue | April 20, 2007

  8. […] One of the real problems I have about the aftermath of tragedies is the response of those who try to use the tragedy to further their agendas. I honestly don’t think that the focus should be on gun control, be it arming fewer or arming more. Mental illness maybe, but not gun control. (See Michael Westmoreland-White’s post.) […]

    Pingback by Howie Luvzus » Virginia Tech Tragedy and Jesus | April 21, 2007

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