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Perspectives: Creating a Community Where People With Mental Health Problems Are Embraced and Not Stigmatized

The senseless killings at Virginia Tech were deplorable and raised great consternation about the security of many campuses. While the media was quick to express their sympathy for the violent acts that claimed the lives of 32 people, they acted just as quickly to categorize the perpetrator as diabolic, full of enmity and mentally ill. The first two inventive statements may be indicative of Seung-Hui Cho’s personality, but to label him as mentally ill fuels the negative perception that many have of people with mental illnesses.

Not to dismiss the fact that Seung-Hui Cho’s was mentally ill, but there are varying degrees of mental illnesses, which run the gamut from depression to schizophrenia. While some mental illnesses prevent individuals from living normal lives, others can be managed with medications and counseling, which helps individuals maintain a sense of normalcy. The media’s labeling of the perpetrator as mentally ill, but not being specific about his illness, not only further distorts the image society has of people with mental health problems, but also engenders and perpetuates stereotypes of people living with mental illnesses as deranged, impulsive and unstable.

It is unfortunate that society has yet to equate mental health illnesses with chronic illnesses that assault other organs. The brain, much like the kidneys, heart and liver, is susceptible to diseases that impede its ability to function in the matter in which it should. When a person’s kidneys fail, society does not say that person has a form of psychosis. When a person’s pancreas becomes inefficient, a doctor prescribes synthetic insulin. However, when a mental health problem emerges, in many cases because of a chemical imbalance in the brain, society tends to label it as a mental aberration.

The hatred unleashed at Virginia Tech has only exacerbated the stigma of mental illness. Like the Cold War-era Blacklisting of suspected Communists, colleges and universities are now increasingly wary of students who fit the profile of the “cold loner.” One doctoral candidate says that because he expressed frustration at being a minority student at a majority White institution, he was commanded by the university to seek counseling. If he refuses, the university has threatened to prevent him from coming back to school. While the university may believe they were acting to prevent another tragedy like the one at Virginia Tech, thought must be given to the implications of singling students out for perceived mental health problems.

According to the American College Health Association, more people with mental health problems are entering college. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that traditional-age students are particularly vulnerable to mental health disorders because problems of that nature tend to manifest during the late teens and early 20s. HHS estimates that 27 percent of young adults have diagnosable mental health illnesses. The media’s portrayal of Seung-Hui Cho may actually make students less willing to seek help for their problems. This is especially true if students believe they would be forced to seek intervention against their will. The higher education community must be wary not to further the stigma about mental health illnesses. Higher education officials must demonstrate a level of sensitivity to this issue and try to view mental health illnesses as innocuous and not detrimental. Finally, they must strive to create an environment where people with mental health problems feel comfortable seeking support and treatment.

—      Robert Palmer is an academic advisor at Morgan State University.


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