Mental health issue at the forefront of Virginia Tech tragedy

By Kathleen Vail

The stories started to emerge just days after the shootings. The English professor who tutored him in poetry when his writings terrified classmates. The roommates who said he had an imaginary girlfriend who traveled through space. The high school classmates who never heard him speak. The distant relatives who said that as a young boy, he hated being touched and didn’t respond to his own name. His Facebook entry with no face.

Seung Hui Cho showed signs of being a very troubled young man long before that cold morning in April when the Virginia Tech senior shot and killed 32 students and teachers, injuring many others before turning a gun on himself.

To make sense of the senseless, educators, law enforcement officials, parents -- everyone, really -- are sifting through clues of Cho’s mental state. The shootings were eerily similar to the Columbine tragedy, even to the date. Cho called Harris and Klebold “martyrs” in the video that he mailed to NBC right before he chained the doors of Norris Hall and opened fire on trapped students and teachers.

Health care professionals and advocates see the focus on Cho’s emotional and mental health as an opportunity to call attention to issues faced by thousands of college and high school students. However, they also worry that people will associate such extreme violence with mental illness, which could unfairly label students living with mental illness on college campuses. 

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