Thoughts on Virginia Tech and the Rights of the Insane* UPDATED

The Virginia Tech tragedy is not a story about guns, it is a story about the rights of the insane. Cho Seung-Hui was clearly insane, as the tapes and writings now ubiquitous in the media show with painful clarity.  That he was both insane and potentially dangerous was known to university officials and law enforcement.  Despite his insanity, he continued to live in the dormitory and attend classes.

Anyone who lives in a big city like LA with a Skid Row knows there are thousands of crazy people sleeping in the streets and shelters who, if properly treated, could live productive, peaceful and perhaps even happy lives.   This has been going on for hundreds of years.

Unlike the Skid Row denizens, apparently Seung-Hui was functional. He hadn’t flunked out of school, for example. He managed to keep himself fed and clothed.  He knew how to operate a computer.  But the depths of his mental problems were at least glimpsed by officialdom — and then forgotten. Seung-Hui was given opportunities to receive treatment, but basically walked away without consequence.  The choice was his to make, completely, and he decided to go on being insane. 

In the past 40 years or so, we have decided as a society that to compel insane people to submit to involuntary treatment, to confine them, or even to keep track of them is both impossible and impractical.  

The good news is, of course, we don’t have insane people warehoused in bleak Dickensian asylums.  It’s also good news that people who are not insane are unlikely to fall into an institution like that through diagnostic or bureaucratic error.  “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” couldn’t happen in America today.

The bad news is, we haven’t thought of anything better. We’ve just walked away from the problem. An insane person only gets help if he or she is sane enough to recognize they need it; or if they have an aggressive relative who will intervene on their behalf, despite their resistance.

I have an insane person in my family. She is about 80 now. The last time anyone saw her was about 20 years ago. Occasionally she sends a postcard. She is wandering the streets of a major metropolitan area.  She didn’t lose her mind until after she was married and had raised children. But since then…there was nothing anyone could do. Her husband, her brothers, her children, various ministers and doctors, nobody, because she didn’t want help.

To my knowledge, she has never hurt anyone. But neither had Seung-Hui, until yesterday.

Dealing with the insane is one of the most tragic dilemmas our society faces.

It blows my mind to think of those grieving parents and how they must be reacting to the news; about how many dealings this guy had with police and mental health officials, how many people knew there was something wrong with him, and that he might be dangerous. And yet, even after the first shootings, no police officer thought to go check his room. He wasn’t on anyone’s list. “Hey, doesn’t that insane student live here? Should we go up and talk to him?” That question was never posed.

He was in a room in a dorm adjacent to the crime scene, calmly reloading his weapons and packing his ammo belts, undisturbed by anyone who might have suspected a connection. He was in America. He had the right to be left alone, and was able to go about making his murderous plans behind the shield of his rights.

(P.S. This post is based on a comment I left here, on Althouse.)

*UPDATE: One consequence of this policy vacuum in terms of the mentally ill is that the problem is left on the doorstep of professionals who have no competence to deal with it, but no choice but to deal with it — at fearful risk of their lives.  This is well articulated in today’s New York Times’ op-ed by Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor and author:

It’s a simple fact that, for every deranged murderer like Mr. Cho there are thousands more oddballs just below the breaking point. I know one quasi-psychopathic incompetent, for example, who remained on the campus payroll for over a dozen years simply because his supervisor was afraid of being killed if he was fired.

It’s long been in fashion to believe that people are innately good, and that upbringing and environment are responsible for nasty personalities. But research is beginning to show that mean, sometimes outright evil behavior has a strong genetic component. Some of us, in other words, are truly born bad.

Researchers at King’s College London have recently determined that if one identical twin shows psychopathic traits, the other twin, who coincidentally shares precisely the same set of genes, has a very high probability of having the same psychopathic traits. But among fraternal twins, who share only half their genes, the chance that both twins will show psychopathic traits is far smaller. In other words, there is something suspiciously psychopath-inducing in some people’s genes.

What could it be? Medical images of the brain give tantalizing clues — the amygdala, the “fight or flight” decision-making center of the brain, may be smaller than usual, or some areas of the brain may glow only dimly because of low serotonin levels. We may not know precisely what set Mr. Cho off, but we are beginning to home in on the unusual differences in certain neurochemistries that can make people act in bizarre and dysfunctional ways.

Still, the Virginia Tech shootings have already led to calls for all sorts of changes: gun control, more mental health coverage, stricter behavior rules on campuses. Yes, in a perfect world, there would be no guns, no mental illness and no Cho Seung-Huis. But the world is very imperfect. Consider that Britain’s national experiment with gun-free living is proving to be a disaster, with violent and gun crime rates soaring.

In other words, most of the broad social “lessons” we are being told we must learn from the Virginia Tech shootings have little to do with what allowed the horrors to occur. This is about evil, and about how our universities are able to deal with it as a literary subject but not as a fact of life. Can administrators and deans really continue to leave professors and other college personnel to deal with deeply disturbed students on their own, with only pencils in their defense?


6 thoughts on “Thoughts on Virginia Tech and the Rights of the Insane* UPDATED

  1. Actually, sane people can and have been committed to institutions where they are drugged to the point where any normal person would think they are insane. If, say, an influential citizen or family member is putting on a convincing enough act in claiming that a person needed help, doctors will “hold” that someone for a day or two and drug them till they are a gibbering mess (despite their right to refuse any and all medications), and then state that “clearly” this person needs a longer stay… the long term effects of such medications on the brain can have life-altering, impacts. If a person did not have severe mental problems before they were forced into a mental hospital, then they certainly would afterwards. So, is a minor bout with depression after an abusive relationship grounds for that kind of treatment?

  2. No!

    This is why the situation is so tragic. I don’t want to go back to a day when a circumstance like you describe is commonplace. But our society’s enlightenment has seemingly stalled in that place. We generally do not confine and treat mentally ill people against their will; instead we… we…

    Maybe a non-layman will come across this post and explain what further steps are taken or can be taken. The way Seung-Hui was treated seems typical: Implore him to seek help, open avenues for that help, and then forget about him.

    Certainly in his case, we can only wish he’d had relative who could “put on a convincing enough act” to get him held and evaluated.

  3. In California, at least, I believe the law states that the maximum time any adult can be confined without his or her approval is 72 hours. Like John, I have an insane member in my family – a cousin who is paranoid schizophrenic. Believe me, if there was a way to keep her inside a facility, her mother would have tried it after the umpteenth 72-hour-hold.

    What my aunt finally learned was that, if she resigned as conservator, the state would step in. At that point, the state could order confinement to insure my cousin took her medications, if they could find her, once they got around to looking for her. That was 1989. AFAIK, the state never located her, although I believe that they made some efforts to locate her whenever my aunt told them what telephone number she had called from, or where she claimed to be. My aunt died a few years ago. My cousin is probably still out on the streets.

  4. Someone exhibiting “psychotic” behavior is too out of touch with reality to murder dozens of people.

    People labeled insane are actually far less likely to murder than “normal” people.

    A mass murderer is almost certainly extremely narcissistic, somewhat above average in intelligence, and a “psychopath”.

    This description fits a lot of political leaders, but then politicians often seem willing or even eager to go to war.

    The description also fits Cho.

    The difference between Cho and many political leaders is that they have charisma and he had almost total alienation from everyone.

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