A Day of Insanity

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Well, 68 Senators had the good sense to at least talk about the gun problem; not that that guarantees results.  It may be a case of when all is said and done, more will be said than done, but it’s a start.

Last week’s column was about our national love/hate affair with violence.  It was not just about guns because, as many point out, any restriction on firearms will have no effect on crime and/or gun deaths.  While that is debatable, I am certainly willing to concede there is truth to that argument.

The case to support that claim can strongly be made in the remembrance of April 16, 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.  He used ordinary weapons, legally purchased, and standard magazines.  So horrific an event, most can remember exactly where we were when we heard the news. I was in the car listening to WVTF when the late Seth Williams interrupted Morning Classics with the jaw-dropping news of what was taking place in Norris Hall. This week, please think of the lost potential of those lives and resolve to use each day we have to a greater good in our world.

Since that day there have many more instances of mass murder and the Newtown tragedy is but the latest and, in some ways, the most heartbreaking.  The sad fact is that such terrific terror will continue to strike and no amount of gun control will prevent it.  Each instance is an act of insanity for which there is no corrective once it has occurred.

In the gun control issue we must not lose sight of fact that mental illness is always a part of these multiple killings.  In medical school, we were taught that one in ten would have some sort of mental illness during our lifetime.  I wondered what that meant.  Mental illness, like insanity, is a description not a diagnosis.  The key is identification before a disastrous incident.

In the case of the Virginia Tech killings, there were multiple warnings of which we know; perhaps many more of which we are unaware.   We do know that none were properly appreciated, including a trip to a psychiatric hospital, clearly disturbed writing presented in essays, behavior prompting removal from a classroom setting, and encounters in the Counseling Center at the university.  Similar troublesome signs have been present in most of the perpetrators of such events.

Why is it these slipped through the cracks?  One of the fortunate things since my medical school days is the recognition that psychiatric problems are not associated with the stigma of those times.  I don’t think I have met an adult whom I know well who has not had some emotional issue with which professional guidance would have been helpful and many have sought it.  But these are reasonable people who make appropriate decisions.  Psychotics are not always capable of reasonable decisions, particularly if they are untreated or, as is too often the case, they feel well so they stop taking their medication.

The openness with which we accept emotional problems is encouraging.  We are in the midst of an epidemic of autism.  Whether it is actually on the increase or just more recognized, parents and educators, pediatricians and neurological researchers are making strides to improve the quality of life for these children.  We need a similar effort for adolescents and adults who are answering to demons which only they can hear.

If society can focus on recognition of behavioral warning signals and develop a system of compassionate care and prevention, then the mass murders may be decreased.  Avoiding even one Virginia Tech or Newtown, a Columbine or Aurora, would be a fitting tribute to the memory of the hundreds who were killed by a senseless act.

This week we might all give some thought on how we can bring about such a result.  It will be much more difficult than the gun control issue, but no less important.

-Hayden Hollingsworth