A Psychiatrist Thinks about Virginia Tech

by Michael Schwartz, MD
May 10, 2007

This is not going to be an article about the psychology of the murderer, the public health implications of easy access to firearms, or the failure of the mental health system to remove the murderer from general circulation before he committed his horrible crime. We would like to think that there is a simple answer to prevention of these sorts of things, but I do not think that is the case. This is going to be an article about the need to be resilient and to get help if you sense that you cannot recover from a tragedy. 

Violence, murder and suicide appear to be a fundamental aspect of human nature. This is a frightening realization, but it is true nonetheless. I was born in 1952 in New York City. Within my first ten years I am pretty sure that I understood that had both sides of my family not emigrated from Europe to America in the early Twentieth Century, they very likely would have been victims of the Nazi genocide. My father fought in World War II, landed on the beaches in Normandy on D-Day and received two Purple Hearts. 

Before I began high school, President Kennedy was assassinated. Before I finished high school, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. During my early adolescence, civil rights workers and marchers were beaten and killed for challenging the entrenched discrimination toward African Americans in the South. During my first year of college four students at Kent State University were killed by National Guardsmen during a peaceful demonstration. The possibility of nuclear annihilation and the Vietnam War were part of my daily consciousness during childhood and adolescence. 

As an adult I’ve lived through Columbine, and two attacks on the World Trade Center, the Gulf War and the ongoing conflict in Iraq.  Now there has been Virginia Tech.

As I psychiatrist and physician, I can tell you that all of this violence, destruction and death is not good for the human mind, heart or soul.

While there has been a great deal of focus on the student who did the killings at Virginia Tech, I can tell you that I have never found these individuals particularly fascinating or interesting. The bottom line is that they are usually extraordinarily self-centered, have a chip on their shoulder, and have access to lethal weapons. People who do bad things – whether it is tailgating you on the highway at 70 mph or taking someone else’s life -- have an infinite capacity to rationalize their antisocial behavior.

My concern is with us – the victims, witnesses and survivors of these horrible events. Some people are closer to the epicenter of these tragedies and both common sense and epidemiologic research indicates that those closer (physically or emotionally) in proximity to the violence or to the victims have greater and more enduring physical and psychological symptoms.

Today we speak of these people as traumatized. They may experience symptoms of severe emotional upheaval and distress, a sense of psychological numbing, an inability to deal with things on a daily basis, and impaired ability to eat, sleep or concentrate. For those who are vulnerable, alcoholism and substance abuse may develop or worsen.

Most people are resilient and they recover on their own, albeit with some emotional scarring. But there are those who do not recover so quickly or completely and these people are advised to seek treatment. They may feel ashamed about their inability to bounce back. They may be angry that people expect them to “forget about it” and move on with their lives. These people need our understanding and support. They need to know that we will not “forget about it.”

The American Psychiatric Association has a terrific website called HealthyMinds.org. This is a wonderful resource for you if you want accurate and up-to-date information about a specific mental health or psychiatric problem or if you are just interested in learning more about mental health and psychiatry. Please check it out! One of the things that you can find on this website is a Fact Sheet on Mental Health Recommendations for College Students who are trying to cope with disasters. There are good suggestions contained within this Fact Sheet for all of us though, and I would just like to point out two of them that I think are very important.

First of all, in the aftermath of a tragedy (or even if there has not been a tragedy) it is important to find ways to give meaning to your situation and to your life. Think about things that you can do that will allow you to make positive emotional connections to other people, your community and our society. When we invest in each other and our society, we can be more sensitive to those who have trouble fitting in and we will be more likely to reach out and offer help to them – perhaps averting a disaster before it occurs.

Secondly, it is important to consider and access mental health treatment for oneself when symptoms are persistent and they interfere with productivity and enjoyment of life. Do not be reluctant to avail yourself of such treatment and do not succumb to the temptation to believe that there is no help and that no one is interested in listening. Talking to a mental health professional is usually extremely helpful; and in some instances the adjunctive use of medication may be extremely beneficial.