Last night, I watched the movie “Mass.” It is a gut-wrenching conversation between the parents of a high school student killed in a mass shooting and the shooter’s parents. The movie depicts the anguish of both families, but I was drawn to the parents of the child who killed his fellow classmates. Their story is especially compelling to me as it portrays the tortuous journey that many families face when a loved one suffers from severe mental illness. In this case, their journey has the worst possible outcome.
The movie transported me back to the shooting at Virginia Tech in April 2007, when a 23-year-old student shot 47 people on the Virginia Tech campus and killed 32. News reports following the incident repeatedly referred to the 32 victims and the shooter. These reports prompted me to write the following editorial, which was published by the Chicago Tribune.
*Note: Today we say, “died by suicide” rather than “committed suicide.”
“This letter may be too soon for some readers, but it deserves its place on the page as much as all those decrying the “evil monster” who committed the awful murders at Virginia Tech. What took place in Virginia was unspeakable. I am shocked and horrified and heartbroken for the 32 students and faculty and all those who loved them.
I am also heartsick for the 33rd victim, Seung-Hui Cho, and his family. I know what it is like to grow up with and love a sibling who later behaves in ways you find unimaginable.
My brother was a funny, creative, smart, well-liked kid. He drew hilarious cartoons and played the drums at a level far beyond his years. He got good grades seemingly effortlessly.
Toward the end of high school, all that began to change. He became quiet and unsociable. His grades slipped. He sold his drums.
His first year of college was a disaster. My brother developed full-blown schizophrenia and suffered hallucinations and paranoia. He trashed his dorm room in violent outbursts and cut himself with shards of glass. He was hospitalized and put on medications that left him unable to continue with classes.
During his twenties, my brother retreated and eventually disengaged himself completely from the rest of us, his family. He lived quietly with a friend for years, sometimes trying to hold a job, but mostly spending his days isolated in his room. He sought treatment and took medications whose side effects were almost as atrocious as his illness. I believe, for that reason, he finally gave up and went off them. He committed suicide at the age of 29.
My mentally ill brother spoke more than Seung-Hui Cho (who had selective mutism), and toward the end, he told us about the utter nightmare that was his daily life – his mind torturing and trapping him in a prison from which he could not flee, telling him that he was worthless or evil, that others were constantly spying on him, that he would be better off dead. There were many other things my brother heard and believed that are too painful to write and probably more he found too painful to share.
Living with untreated schizophrenia is a kind of unique hell that is almost impossible to imagine.
Untreated, severe mental illness can cause sufferers to do terrible things. In my family’s case, my brother’s violence was directed at himself. Seung-Hui Cho’s case was different. His illness directed him in other ways.
The overwhelming majority of severely mentally ill people are not violent – they live quietly among us, coping as best they can in a society that wants to pretend they don’t exist, or worse, believes them to be “monsters” and “evil.” And unless you’ve ever tried to navigate the shambles that is the “mental health care system” in the United States, please do not dare judge Seung-Hui Cho or his family’s attempts to help him. Getting help is often an exercise in frustration and pain that no one should have to experience.
Until we collectively agree to discard the ignorance and replace it with a compassionate, responsive, community approach to treating and assisting those with mental illness, we will continue the futile search for “motives” when the only one that existed was a severe, untreated brain illness.
Today, I am grieving as much for Seung-Hui Cho and his family as for those who died as a result of the nightmare that was his undiagnosed, untreated mental illness.”
Sadly, most of this what I wrote in 2007 remains completely apt today. While there is greater awareness that these incidents are likely caused by an untreated severe mental health disorder, little has been done to fix our broken mental health care system. While children are routinely screened for many health disorders by pediatricians and even at school, there is no systemic, coordinated screening for the most common disorder – a mental health challenge.
One in five of our children suffers from a mental health disorder – this fact remains true throughout the lifetime. HALF of all mental health disorders first emerge before age 14 and 75% by the age of 24. (1.) There is an abundance of signs of mental health disorders that can help us identify those children early and get them treatment, and the earlier diagnosis and treatment begin, the better the long-term outcomes.
Anxiety tops the list of common childhood mental health challenges, but very young children can also experience severe mental illnesses (those that cause the most disability) like major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, beginning at just age 10, suicide is the second leading cause of death. (2.)
In fact, in 2019, suicide was the SECOND leading cause of death for children and adults between the ages of 10-34. For this reason, we must do a better job of identifying and providing treatment to those with mental health challenges and help prevent terrible events like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, the Parkland, FL shootings, and so many more.
The good news is that we need not rely on a massive shift in the mental health care or school systems to do a better job of getting help to youth who need it. We can all become more aware of the abundance of signs that indicate a mental health disorder starting in very early childhood and even infancy.
We can improve our own mental health literacy by becoming familiar with the signs that may mean someone needs help. We can also learn how to intervene. At the I’ve Got You Project, we share hundreds of signs and risk factors for developing mental health disorders throughout the lifespan beginning in infancy. It’s a resource for everyone – those who are suffering and those who are concerned about someone. It even includes information about how to help people we don’t know in public situations, so they don’t become victims twice – first of their mental illness, and secondly of the public humiliation caused by being recorded on phones and uploaded to the internet.
In this increasingly interconnected world, it is us – the community – that will take the lead in changing the mental health landscape through understanding of the thoughts, feelings, and behavior that indicate mental health disorders and offering compassionate help.
Please join the I’ve Got You Project movement to share awareness and compassion and be part of this change, and invite others! Together, we can help prevent events like the terrible one portrayed in “Mass.
FINAL NOTE: One of the most important ways we will help end school shootings is by believing what our youth and young adults tell us when they say things like, “I want to die,” and “Help me.” Listen to teachers, school counselors, Scout leaders, etc., when they say, “I’m very concerned about your child,” or “Your child said they want to die and/or hurt others.” Time and again, dismissing these kinds of signs has led to the worst outcomes. Many children and young adults are telling us that they want or need help through their schoolwork, online presence, artwork, and comments to friends. Let’s begin honoring those signs collectively and immediately. And please – keep firearms and ammunition locked and inaccessible.