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Commentary: A Hokie Parent and Mental Health Clinician Reacts to the Virginia Tech Tragedy

April 25, 2007

By Kim Kelsey, MSW admissions coordinator

As a mother of a Virginia Tech graduate (Luke Conte – Class of 2002) and as a social work professor and practicing mental health clinician I have been horrified and haunted on multiple levels by the specter of our most recent “national tragedy.”

My heart aches for the families and friends of the victims of this latest episode in our nation’s ongoing epidemic of violence. As a parent, I have experienced both the joys and sorrows of dropping my children off for their first semesters at college. On these occasions and in the months that followed I experienced some of the fears that seemed inevitable. I worried about whether they would eat well, whether they would like their roommates, whether they would earn decent grades, among other things. But I did not worry that my children would be gunned down while attending their chosen institutions of learning.

The beauty and serenity of the Virginia Tech campus are clearly evident at first glance. Nestled in the rolling hills of southwestern Virginia, its open spaces and solid grand buildings composed of the beautiful multihued “Hokie stone” create an atmosphere of tranquility and safety. Even the presence of the Corp of Cadets creates a sense of order and regularity to campus life.

I never imagined this campus would one day be the scene of such senseless and tragic carnage. My son has called and written from his current teaching post in China and he too is struggling to understand how an event like this can transpire in a place that felt so safe and where so many positive things have happened.

This latest “national tragedy” garnered the descriptor of “monumental” from Virginia Tech’s president and, indeed, in viewing the sea of faces of the victims it seems an apt one. I was so moved by the online photos, this beautiful group of human beings, tragically brought together in death on this peaceful campus.

They ranged in age from 18-76. They came from places as diverse as Vietnam, India, Peru, Puerto Rico, Egypt, Romania, Indonesia, and the United States. They were dancers, teachers, musicians, athletes, scientists, cadets, and renowned researchers. They were fathers, partners, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters. None of them deserved to die on that day. Of particular poignancy and irony is the fate of the Liviu Librescu, the 76-year-old head of the engineering science and mechanics department. He was a survivor of the Holocaust who had escaped Communist Romania but who did not escape the culture of violence so heartbreakingly present in our nation.

We are overcome with grief at times such as this and we struggle to understand why such violence persists. What causes one individual to commit such a heinous crime? What possible events or experiences in a child’s life led to such nihilistic actions? When we look at the shameful statistics regarding violent deaths in the US we must ask ourselves how we are failing our children and our youth as a nation. There are no simple answers but I would like to highlight some of the factors that I believe may have played a significant role in this latest tragedy.

Despite being the richest nation in the world, it is clear we have an under funded patchwork mental health system. Very little money is allocated for prevention or early intervention. We have improved diagnostic capabilities but offer sadly inadequate care mechanisms.

Seung-Hui Cho was determined by mental health professionals to be a risk to himself and was released and sent back to campus two days later, with apparently no plans for any follow up care. In searching for some explanation of his unique pathology I have been reading and listening to accounts of peers and relatives. Some of the incidents and descriptions revealed from his past make me wonder if he might have suffered from a form of selective mutism. This is an anxiety disorder which impedes communication and when untreated can result in extreme social isolation. Social isolation becomes a significant risk factor for many destructive behaviors and may have also contributed to his own reported victimization in middle school and high school.

Clearly, by the time he got to Virginia Tech, he was an extremely isolated young man. Except for his disturbing writing assignments, it appears his exchanges with others were almost non-existent.

It is a sad irony that, as reported by his two roommates, he was obsessed with a song by Collective Soul entitled “Shine.” He reportedly played it over and over again and even scribbled its lyrics on his dormitory walls. Some of the lyrics include: “Love is in the water, love is in the air. Show me where to go, tell me will love be there. Teach me how to speak, teach me how to share, teach me where to go, tell me will love be there. Oh heaven, let your light shine down.”

He also reportedly identified himself to others as question mark. (?) I do believe these were cries for help, cries that were not perceived or went unheeded. I have no doubt that as a privileged nation and in such renowned institutions of higher learning that we can do a better job at recognizing these types of risk factors and implementing interventions to address them.

Finally, I think we must examine our culture of violence. The glamorization of violence pervades all facets of our media and the entertainment industry. It is simply pervasive and we have created a virtual smorgasbord for our children to feast upon. We must begin to honestly examine the price we are paying for such unrestricted production and availability.

And we must begin to seriously debate our nation’s obsession with the virtually unrestricted freedom to purchase lethal weapons. In this country, there is reportedly more than one gun for every man, woman and child. Is there really any rational justification for this astonishing figure? Who benefits from such a production, accumulation, and distribution of weapons? Not Paducha, KY, not Columbine, not the Amish community and not Virginia Tech. Please tell me, can we at least begin to seriously dialogue about these issues? How much more “monumental” do the outcomes have to be for us to take more effective action? Let us not close this latest chapter, let the news die down, our nightmares subside and wait for the next location. We need to name and claim this crisis, question our responses and examine our complacency. We cannot keep compiling beautiful photo montages of the dead. We must look deep into our “collective soul” and come up with better ways to prevent another tragedy.


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