Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Virginia Tech Tragedy: Distinguishing Mental Illness from Violence

Statement of Ken Duckworth, MD
NAMI Medical Director

April 18, 2007

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) extends its sympathy to all the families who have lost loved ones in the terrible tragedy at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute. We are an organization of individuals and families whose lives have been affected by serious mental illnesses.

Despite media reports, Cho Seung Hui, the shooter in the tragedy, may not actually have had a serious mental illness relative to other diagnoses. But the possibility opens the door for reflection on the nature of mental illnesses—what they are and what they are not— with regard to symptoms, treatment and risks of violence.

The U.S. Surgeon General has reported that the likelihood of violence by people with mental illness is low. In fact, "the overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small." More often, people living with mental illness are the victims of violence.


Read the full NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill) article here.

I and my father had a discussion about this last night. He felt that mentally ill people are dangerous. I told him he was more likely to be harmed in a car accident than by an altercation with a mentally ill person. It is this kind of stigma and narrow mindedness that those of us with mental illness have to continually fight. Statistically, mentally uninteresting people (my term) are far more likely to commit crimes than mentally ill people. You can look at the prison population to prove that easily. It saddens me that even my own father falls prey to this tired and overused portrayal of mentally ill people. Maybe one day we will be free at last to quote the late and great Dr. King. The Cho Seung Hui’s of the world certainly don’t make it any easier for us to overcome these baseless fears.


KYRIE said...

I really don't think the guy was mentally ill at all. He was a cruel young man. Period. The reason why people are saying tht he was ill is people are unable grasp such violence and are trying to find reasons behind such an act at all the wrong places.
I was kinda offended too whn they kept saying the guy was a loner because I thought now all the loners and quite ones at schools are gonna get stigmatized.
Whatever it may be, those poor souls who died never deserved such a fate. My prayers are with thm.

Té la mà Maria said...

Hello I am visiting your blog-Web and I like much. Congratulations

If you want you can visit ours, one is but irreverent and iconoclastic blog of the world, and one is in Catalonia - Spain

Thank you very much


C.A. said...

Andrew I like the term "mentally uninteresting". I'm off to read the full statement.



M said...

Hm...from my reading and limited work in the MH field, I would say that most people with mental illness are not able to organize thoughts well enough to pull off a mass murder. The brain chemistry of the mentally ill is too messed up when not medicated for the mentally ill to pull off a crime. The analogy to a physcial illness would be someone who has broken his arm can't carry his groceries...

However, I do believe that this murderer had some sort of psychopathology. He wasn't right in the head or the heart or the soul. He may have benefited from intervention from mental health professionals.

Amy said...

I agree with Kyrie; Cho's possible mental illness may or may not have contributed to his killing spree. Mostly likely, it had nothing to do with mental illness and everything to do with evil. When a man like Cho takes God off of His throne and puts himself there, that's the self-centered, self-aggrandizing behavior that allows you to make up the rules as you go along.

I've had only a little experience with mental illnesses in the form of depression, bi-polar disorders, even schizophrenia. While I do not suffer from any of these illnesses, many of the high school students I teach do. These illnesses have ravaged some of my kids, but none of them are violent. In fact, if anything they are more passive than most. I too, Andrew, am saddened that what has happened at V.T. will probably stir up fear in those who have no understanding of mental illness.

Monkling said...

I would like to believe that the attitude of your dad is simply reflective of a somewhat older generation. I know that my parents' generation looked at mental illness in a very different light than I and my siblings. I hope that my children & their generation will view it with even greater understanding and compassion. People such as yourself, through your blog, will aid in that understanding.

Dave said...

I think I have to say that Cho, whatever he was was not sane. If not being sane is different than not having a form of mental illness, then maybe he didn't have a mental illness or at least a serious one. Seems to be, given the results, a distinction without a difference.

There are of course violent people who are perfectly sane and others that are not. I'd doubt that many thinking people think that because Cho was mentally ill, which he obviously was, means that other people who have a mental illness are necessarily suspect.

SimplyTim said...


There was a psychiatrist who exploded the myth of violence with the mentally ill. I'm not sure of the exact spelling but I'm pretty sure his name is Thomas Szasz

He made for very interesting reading.


LOGUE said...

you can submit your blog to the Blogger blogs-by-topic directory at just follow the instructions on top of the page there.

joyous melancholy said...

It angers me that a man such as your father, who is allegedly educated, dabbles in the medical field, and has lived with someone such as yourself, would continue to see people with mental illness as "dangerous." Unfortunately, people are more likely to listen to him and lend his point of view credence, rather than to actually believe what you say about the issue.

I tend to believe that the recent violence was more a case of someone who finally snapped after being abused by his peers. You can only push a person so far, mentally "ill" or not.

Sandi said...

Enjoying your blog..this is my first visit. I will be back to read more. :)

Rich said...

This may be getting off the real topic here but what bothers me most is: people with mental illness that seek treatment are denied life insurance policies. The stigma remains.
Meanwhile people who have serious mental illness and do not seek help could probably get life insurance easier than someone getting treatment. Wouldn't you think it would be the other way around?

austere said...

Its part of the general reaction and helplessness that people are feeling about now.Easiest to hit out what is obvious.

It is incorrect to equate both mental illness and a destructive streak. There are enough sharp shooters who are perfectly normal and kill without compunction because that's their work.

BoggyWoggy said...

Cho suffered from bent thinking. He was not a loner. He was lonely, which brought on severe hatred and illogical thinking. I read a wonderful editorial about the differences between "loners" and "the lonely." Made me really think about folks I know who are seriously messed up...who are angry...

Jeff H said...

I worked in psychiatry for 14 years, 10 of those years on inpatient units. I've had more than my share of incidents of having to physically manage out-of-control patients (I even taught the class on physical management for a year or so at one facility).

The statement by NAMI is correct: violence by the mentally ill is no more prevalent than by the "sane". It just tends to get more air play in our over-therapized culture (I say "over-therapized" not to disparage those who seek professional help, but because the reasons people seek help rarely have to do with actual mental illness, but rather with some vague sense that they can live happier lives via therapy; in short, it's a "quality-of-life" issue for most, rather than a "life-and-death" issue). People, particularly in the media, always want to find some "reason" for people acting violently, and want to assume it's not just a part of their nature to so act. So they search (often in vain) for a "diagnosis" of the perpetrator.

All-too-often, it's just a matter of an idiot or an evil, sin-sick soul.