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The Virginia Tech Massacre

Posted on Thursday, Apr 19th 2007

All news channels are focused on the Virginia Tech massacre. Few, however, drill down to the key big picture issue : what is wrong with the US Mental Health Legal System?

For those of my international readers, if you are not familiar with the incident, a short description from Wikipedia follows:

“The Virginia Tech massacre was a university shooting that took place on Monday, April 16, 2007 on the campus of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia, United States. A gunman killed thirty-two people and injured twenty-nine before committing suicide, making it the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

The gunman, identified by authorities as Cho Seung-hui, was born in South Korea and grew up in Northern Virginia. He had permanent residence status and was a fourth-year English major at Virginia Tech.”

It turns out that Cho was mentally ill.

It also turns out that 10% of the US population is mentally ill, mental illness defined as Scrizophenia, Bipolar, Borderline, Scrizoaffective disorders, Psychosis, chronic depression, etc.

It further turns out that the US legal system assumes that these mentally ill patients are in a stable enough condition to determine whether or not they should be on medication. Even if psychiatrists recommend medication, the patients’ legal rights permit them to refuse. They cannot be locked up, even if they are in no condition to roam free in society.

At the humane level, there is very little facility in the US system to provide state-supported “confined” care for mentally ill people. Instead, every year, hundreds of thousands of them are released into the streets, and they join the ranks of the homeless. San Francisco is teeming with them.

Families try to cope with mental illness, but it is difficult and often, it tears apart families.

A strategic, humane solution to the mental health problem in the US is not only recommended, it is absolutely necessary. Else, we’ll see more tragedies like this take place. Today, this college kid has lost control. Tomorrow, some mentally ill, homeless person on the streets of San Francisco will. The day after, a New York sub-way dweller.

Do we want this to go on?

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