I know I’ve been writing a lot about the Virginia Tech tragedy, and I promise to move on very soon, but today I can’t stop thinking about it because, for me, it points to how ignorant most people are with regard to mental illness.
I know this is a very Catholic thought (everything’s our fault)…but I can’t help but feel that we, as a society, are partly to blame for these kinds of disasters: mostly by our lack of understanding of mood disorders and severe psychiatric diseases, but also by our self-absorption–the fact that most of us wouldn’t know if our neighbor was suicidal and even if we did, that we probably wouldn’t do anything about it.
We’ll never have a full picture of what went wrong as Cho descended to a place that led him to commit mass murder. But we can’t help but think, what if his family, classmates, and teachers back in middle school, when the boy already exhibited signs of mental illness (by not speaking) were educated on the various symptoms and kinds of psychiatric problems and intervened? What if neighbors and parents and aunts and uncles could have recognized danger, and driven the boy to counseling or to a support group, or to a doctor, or to an occupational therapist, or to a consultation with experts of all kinds to figure out what was wrong and what, if anything, they could do about it?
“Korean immigrants would feel shame,” said Sang Lee, director of the Asian American Program at Princeton Theological Seminary. “There would be some reluctance and some hesitancy in admitting [a mental illness] and openly seeing a doctor.”
“Why the hell didn’t the roommates or the teachers or the neighbors or the family force the boy to get help?” my friend Margie said to me yesterday when we were debating the topic. “It’s our responsibility as a society to look after one another, and when something isn’t right, to pluck that person out of the community, and get him the help he needs.”
“That only works,” I said, “if the society is well-informed. Had I listened to my community when I was suicidal, I would be dead. Remember, they told me to get off the meds, find my center, and look to the light.”
“But your community is abnormal,” she countered.
“I don’t think so,” I replied. “Watch ‘Oprah’ and you’ll find that that philosophy is more mainstream than you think. And if it’s not the Tom Cruise/anti-meds movement thwarting the progress of understanding, it’s old-fashioned stigma against mental illnesses or cultural biases.”
I reminded her that when I was a threat to myself, very suicidal (and very vocal about my intentions), one person suggested I pack my bags for the hospital. She was a nurse, and not even that great a friend at the time. But (because of her training) she was very knowledgeable about mental disorders and could see some bedspread-sized red flags. Hers were the sole pair of eyes that could see the train wreck coming down the track before it happened.
Neighbor one: “You need to be better organized. That’s the source of your problems.”
Neighbor two: “Whatever you do, don’t let this [my depression and mental instability] get out. It will ruin you.”
Neighbor three: “Buck up!”
Many more: “Meditate and think positive.”
Yes, as a society we are responsible for each other. But, man is that scary considering what lots of folks around me believe about mental illness.
Which is why, in my opinion, the first step is to educate. Because until we count mental disorders as legitimate diseases, trying to help people like Cho won’t matter. We can have the best intentions, as all of my friends and family members did, but the majority of them couldn’t begin to help me because they didn’t have a clue about how to recognize and treat my mood disorder.
That’s why I’ve become so passionate in my mission to educate the world on mental illness. So that, God forbid, if anything like this ever happens again, we, as a society can say, “we did our best.”