When everyone’s a psychologist
How do you make sense of an apparently senseless act of violence? Especially something as terrible as the Virginia Tech massacre, now believed to be the worst mass shooting in US history. Well, psychologists are one of the first ports of call. The media and public want answers – what could have sparked such a horrific event, and could they – could we – have prevented it? The media initially dusted off the familiar scapegoats of violent video games, movies and other media, while also trying to point the finger of blame at a troubled young man, an alienating unsympathetic college environment and a country with effortless access to guns. But as the column centimetres stacked up, interesting issues arose surrounding both how much psychologists were willing and able to say, and the implications for the mental health system as a whole. The media reported that Cho was, in many ways, ‘the walking blueprint of a mass killer’ (The Times): a friendless young man, one who had suffered bullying, was socially isolated, painfully awkward, hurt, blaming others and bent on revenge, and lashing out with methodical fury at a world he believed was out to get him. Crucially, The Times reported, such people believe that their hurt feelings have not been acknowledged, that their distress is not taken seriously. Their frustration at the external world turns to seething rage, which they ultimately vent by killing.
But is there an accurate or useful profile of students who engaged in spree killing? There are many students who are troubled and many who have a fascination with death, but this does not mean that they are going to kill people. Resisting the temptation to dramatise, The Independent commented that school spree shooters are ‘often depressed and angry, but rarely mentally ill’.
However, understandably, psychologists were recruited to account for reasons behind the shooting. In an age of rolling 24-hour news, this was happening while the full details of the act were still being pieced together. Steve Hinshaw (University of California, Berkeley) commented on BBC News that while it is impossible to accurately diagnose Cho from the brief set of video clips, his actions and words showed Cho could have been suffering from a severe case of grandiosity and possibly either bipolar depression or schizophrenia. ‘He made a statement that he won’t be put down and this must be shown in a self-destructive but self-promoting blaze of glory.’
Robin Kowalski (Clemson University in South Carolina) commented that ‘teasing, bullying or other kinds of rejection were common elements in school shootings’ (BBC News), while Dorothy Rowe (in The Times: see tinyurl.com/35ahy8) said that school and college campuses may exacerbate extreme behaviour because they are enclosed separate worlds. ‘Things that may be quite trivial take on an intensity because you cannot get away from them… all you see are other students. It is like a hot house.’
The bottom line is that much of what psychologists can say about Cho’s motivation will be little more than speculation. Researchers investigating such killings have little evidence to work with, as ‘sprees’ are extremely rare and most gunmen are shot down by police or kill themselves. In Cho’s case the media turned to plays he had written. However, as Ged Bailes (Head of Forensic Clinical Psychology at the Norvic Clinic in Norwich) pointed out, ‘With the benefit of hindsight people will read all sorts of things into these plays. But on their own all they prove is that he was not very good at creative writing.’ Jack Levin, a forensic psychologist at Northeastern University, commented that ‘after these episodes, everyone becomes a psychologist, looking back at warning signs… the observation of friends and family members are often unreliable, informed by 20/20 hindsight more than anything else’ (Newsweek).
Whatever did motivate Cho, we know that fellow students and lecturers had raised red flags about his behaviour. They called it threatening, harassing and suicidal, and his violence-filled writings were so disturbing that lecturers appealed to him to receive counselling. However, psychiatrist Professor Anthony David (King’s College London) commented in a letter to The Guardian, that the local mental health services would have been unable to act in as he had not done anything at the time. Professor David believes that in such a case here the ‘proposed new Mental Health Bill would have enabled clinicians to admit him to hospital, if they thought it clinically appropriate’.
However, responding the next day, Paul Corry (Director of Public Affairs, Rethink) said that the Mental Health Act already allows for detention in a hospital for the ‘protection of other persons’. ‘What the government is proposing in amendments now before Parliament is to introduce the same kind of compulsory treatment in the community as already exists in Virginia. Cho Seung-Hui was subject to such an order. Being subject to supervised community treatment, as it is to be known here, will not prevent many, if any, of the 50 homicides a year involving someone with a mental illness, any more than its imposition on Cho Seung-Hui prevented the awful events in Virginia. What would make a difference to the one in four people here who are turned away when seeking help is a legal right to care and treatment.’
Could have anything been done to prevent the Virginia Tech shooting? What were the motivations for the act? Does wider society have to take some responsibility for such a horrific event? Cho Seung-Hui may have taken to the grave what pushed him over the edge to murder 32 people. There are still more questions than answers, but let’s hope lessons can be learnt from this tragedy. And let’s hope they are not knee-jerk reactions from a media trying to play the blame game.
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