In wake of VT shootings: Experts say mental health care in shambles

Mental health care advocates and medical experts say the April 16 shooting deaths of 32 students and faculty members at Virginia Tech, followed by the suicide of the student who did the killing, raise larger questions about the nation’s broken mental health system. It’s a system that leaves the most severely ill untracked, untreated and without a public safety net.

In Virginia, due to cutbacks in 24-hour and residential psychiatric facilities in the past 20 years, and decreased financing for local mental health care services, many believe the system is in shambles. The result, say experts, is a crisis in both long-term and short-term care.

Nationally, between 1970 and 2002 inpatient and residential treatment beds for the mentally ill dropped by more than half, from 524,878 to 211,199, according to a Newhouse News Service report.

Russ Federman, director of counseling and psychological services at the University of Virginia, testified before Congress April 23 about the inadequacy of campuses’ mental health resources. Fifty percent of students reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult to function, Federman said, with 9 percent seriously considering suicide. Yet, Federman said, there is only one full-time clinical staff member for every 1,697 students.

Mental health experts also warn against painting a sweeping picture that all who suffer from mental illness are violent.

Amy Forsyth-Stephens, executive director of the Mental Health Association of the New River Valley, which, like Virginia Tech, is located in Blacksburg, Va., wrote in the Roanoke Times, “The vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to commit violent acts than the general public.” People with mental illnesses are actually more often victims of violence than perpetrators of it, she noted.

In equating mental illness to violence, Forsyth-Stephens wrote, “we marginalize the millions of Americans who work to manage their illness and lead productive lives. What’s more, by fueling this link between violence and mental illness, we discourage people who need medical care from seeking it.”

The horrific Virginia Tech shooting can be “an opportunity to embrace mental health for all Americans — not just those privileged enough to afford treatment, or those lucky enough to avoid illness,” she concluded.

The shootings also shine a spotlight on the special needs of immigrants facing racist and cultural barriers.

Seung-Hui Cho, 23, the Virginia Tech senior who carried out the killings and then committed suicide, emigrated from South Korea to the U.S. with his family at age 8. His father works as a pants presser at a dry cleaner.

Virginia Korean American leaders met with Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, last week, and asked him to boost mental-health funding for immigrants and their families.

Paul T.P. Wong, a psychologist at Tyndale University in Toronto, Canada, who specializes in cross-cultural issues, said in a press release that many immigrants experience high stress due to the difficulties of acculturation, language barriers, poverty and discrimination. The “cumulative stress of these risk factors,” added on to existing mental illness, can be crushing, he said.

Wong called for more ethnically diverse counselors in schools and communities to serve the mental health needs of immigrants and ethnic minorities.

“On the social level, we need to make medical and psychological services available to all who cannot afford them,” he added.

plozano @ pww.org. Susan Webb contributed to this article.