>As my regular readers know, I was very much away from news sources on Monday, April 16, until the early evening because I was running the Boston Marathon. I do intend to blog about that, but I really didn’t want to come back to the blog with a triumphant post about the potential of the human spirit and body, as if nothing else happened in the world while I was away.
And I particularly wanted to write something about the horrifying shooting at Virginia Tech first, not because I think I have something terribly enlightening or wise to say about it, but because this tragedy is directly related to my world and to the subject and purpose of this blog, academic life in the fullest sense of that phrase, and I feel some sense of duty to say something. So I’ll tell you what I’ll say to my students tomorrow, whom I haven’t seen since last Thursday. The following is more “writerly” and more lecture-like than what I’ll actually say, but the substance is the same.
I want to start class by talking about Cho Seung-Hui and the death of 33 people at Virginia Tech University on Monday, because it matters to us. Cho Seung-Hui was an English major, but that’s not the only reason this tragedy matters to us; had he been a business major I’d still be talking to you. He was a student, and his victims were students and faculty members, and so are we, but that’s still not the only reason his acts and their consequences matter to us. Cho Seung-Hui and his victims were human beings, and for that reason, this matters to all of us, as does any act of violence, injustice, deprivation, and degredation, even the ones the news media doesn’t cover.
Many people in Cho Seung-Hui’s world saw the signs of his mental instability and illness, and they tried to do something to see that he was cared for. According to what I’ve read in the NY Times and heard on NPR — generally reliable sources — he was referred to and even escorted to professional mental health facilities; the police were alerted; his roommates and classmates were aware that something was wrong; his teachers alerted various authorities and people who could help. He even had a prescription for anti-depressants. So why didn’t he get the help he needed? What went wrong? Was Cho Seung-Hui too far gone to look after himself?
I have no idea, really. What follows is pure speculation. I wonder if the stigma attached to regular pscyhological and psychiatric treatment, especially for Americans, especially for men, had something to do with Cho Seung-Hui’s not getting the thorough treatment he needed. Americans, and American men especially, live in a “boot strap” culture that values individualism, will power, toughness, self-reliance, and emotional stoicism, and reacts negatively to anything that is perceived as showing weakness, “unmanliness,” or a need for others. I think college students — women as well as men — are susceptible to buying into this culture. You know you are. You don’t seek help when you need it because you fear looking idiotic, or wussy, or, god forbid, needy. You tell yourself “I can handle this,” when this is a 35-hour work week and a full course load, or a terrible break-up, or even grief at the loss of a loved-one. You convince yourself that you don’t have time to grieve or deal with your problems, because graduation is around the corner and you have to, must, will, and shall graduate on time with the GPA of your dreams, and if not, you’re convinced your life is over.
Listen to me. I am the poster child of misguided detemination and will power. I got a PhD and tenure track job; I run marathons; on Monday I ran the Boston marathon in 20mph winds and rain, with this damn cold. All good and admirable, right? But when my sister died, I took one freakin day off from my classes. Heck, it runs in the family: two weeks before that she was deeply apologetic that she couldn’t after all make it to watch me run my hometown marathon, but she wanted me to know that she tried — while she was dying of cancer.
But see, eventually I realized that for all the planning and training and determination, there are things that are out of my control, as well as out of yours. Loss is one of them. It’s inevitable. Death’s another. We all die. And certain conditions of mental and physical health are also out of your control. When my mother died and I couldn’t sleep, no matter how “hard” I “tried,” and when I was tormented by nightmares, I saw a mental health professional. And I kept seeing her until she decided, as a mental health expert, with my input, that I was functioning more normally.
If people ever tell you you need to seek help for depression or something more serious, get it and stick with it. A depressed or addicted or otherwise ill person is in little or no position to decide for themselves that they’re OK, that they can simple “deal with it.” There is no shame for seeking help for mental illness, any more than there’s shame for getting treatment for a broken leg or bronchitis. These things are out of your control and your expertise, and that’s OK. Tell this to the people in your life, too, so that they get it. Say it over and over again until they do.
I’m saying this especially for those of you — men and women — really taken in by the idea that you have to “handle” things on your own, that extreme stress is “just a phase” or “natural” for college students. But I’m especially saying this for the men, especially you midwestern men, because, in general, you’re the least likely to get the help you need. It’s not a weakness to seek help; spin it differently. In a culture that expects men to be stoic superheroes, overcoming that stereotype and seeking help actually takes a lot of strength.
Sorry to go on and on, but it matters. Is there anything you would like to say?