A psychologist who identifies as an individual who has personally experienced mental health care reflects on the lessons we can draw from the Virginia Tech tragedy. Al Galves, PhD is a board member of MindFreedom International, though this is an individual statement.
What jumps out at me about the Virginia Tech tragedy is that we had one chance as a society to help Cho Seung-hu – the day he was involuntarily hospitalized after stalking some women. How was he treated? He was kept overnight, given some drugs and sent back out into the world. No attempt was made to help him deal with his alienation, anger and despair.
Would things have turned out differently if we had been able to metaphorically hold Cho in our arms, wrap our arms around him long enough so that he could begin to become less afraid, alienated, hurt, desperate, distraught?
Would things have turned out differently if he had been in a place in which, instead of treating him as a mentally ill person who needed treatment, he was seen as a troubled, frightened man who needed to be able to take some time to slowly be in the presence of other people who wouldn’t pressure him to do anything or change anything, would be attentive and affirming, would maintain contact with him even if he tried to push them away and would enable him to slowly settle in, become less guarded, slowly let down his defenses and melt into connection with people with whom he was comfortable?
One of the problems with involuntary commitment is that there aren’t many good places in which to commit a person. The few times I involuntarily committed patients to hospitals I was struck by how poorly they were treated. In each case, the person was drugged up, given an opportunity to participate in a group meeting that was not likely to be very helpful and sent back to the outside world in two days, probably worse off than they were when they were committed.
The bottom line is that we’re not prepared to intervene effectively in the lives of dangerous people.
What we need is places of safety and nurturance where people in crisis and the people who are helping them have time to get to know each other, to slowly become less afraid, to gradually heal and, step by step, regain their abilities to express themselves in life-enhancing ways of loving, working, enjoying and contributing to their lovers, friends, families and communities.
Sadly, those kinds of places are few and far between.