After the unfortunate murder suicide at the University of Maryland College Park by a graduate student who used a handgun to commit his crimes, The Sun wrote an editorial urging college campuses to educate their students about the signs of mental illness in their fellow students ("Campus nightmare," Feb. 14). In fact, you wanted this type of education to be a part of college orientation programs.
Well intentioned though this editorial was, it didn't offer one sure and certain method to prevent the kind of disaster that occurred at College Park. That is because no such method exists. Recognition of mental illness is merely the first step in a series of steps that must be taken to prevent deranged killers. It is in taking those series of steps we fail as a nation but not without sound reason.
All mental illnesses are not the same. They vary in intensity and duration of symptoms. Some sufferers will show periods of lucidity that can be confusing even to experts. Not all chronic sufferers from mental illness will have an acute psychotic breakdown, the type the College Park graduate student probably had. It is quite unpredictable when or if, acute psychosis will occur in any patient with mental illness. Although privacy rights have been grossly undermined in the age of the Internet, as a nation we claim we value privacy. To explore someone's thoughts and behaviors deeply requires a level of intimacy and time. Most college students are rushed. They are self-involved, trying to burn the candle at both ends, meeting deadlines for school work and often working one or two jobs to cover their tuition and room and board. To expect these students to recognize the symptoms of mental illness and to expect them to further separate the dangerous kind from the benign variety is pie in the sky. Let us say they did listen to your sage avuncular advice and became experts in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, then what? Do they dare interfere in the privacy rights of a student even if they suspect that the student is dangerously deranged?
If they suspect a roommate of bizarre behavior and an ongoing mental breakdown, do they persuade the person who is disintegrating to seek help? Do they call the parents of the person who is coming undone mentally? How credible would they be if they did? Do they tell a professor? Most professors being distant and absent from student affairs in big universities, what professor will stick his neck out, and go over to the dorms, to interview a disturbed student or what professor would be bold enough to get the family of the afflicted student involved?
Most professors would be shaking in their boots that they will be accused of interloping in the student's privacy and afraid of a negative fall-out from being good Samaritans will prefer the safety of apathy to the potential controversy of involvement.
Should friends and roommates drag the sick student to a psychiatric facility for an exam? Should they drive the sick person personally to a college physician? Should they make appointments without the mentally ill person knowing? Should they persuade the mentally ill student to cooperate with his own commitment and psychiatric treatment? Is that even possible? Isn't a person who is mentally ill enough to be psychotic, also lacking in judgment and often uncooperative, belligerent and dangerous?
Most responsible and normal folks fail to take the series of steps necessary to keep a campus safe from deranged students because they often do not know how to handle these students and they worry in what worse trouble or danger they will land by interfering. The disturbed student could get paranoid and hunt them down for their good intentions or the student may not have been as sick as they imagined and could sue them for infringement of his privacy rights. There is no winning in this cat and mouse game. When my son suspected that his roommate in college was having a breakdown, he got scared and stayed out of his room, slept in the library, came home often and generally practiced avoidance to save his own neck. He also repeatedly asked for a room change which the oblivious authorities never granted him.
Severe mental illness marches to the beat of its own drums. It does not listen to kind words. It is warped by paranoia and delusions of grandeur. It may not submit easily to medications. It may not follow instructions. It often will not be compliant with the regimens devised to control and extinguish its ferocity. It will not be taken for that first visit to the doctor. It could refuse to go for follow up visits. Even when a medication regimen has been charted, severe mental illness can swim around in uncharted territory as though the treatment plan never happened.
To make the early recognition and treatment of mental illnesses a goal in the prevention of violence is a worthy pursuit. But an even worthier and productive pursuit is gun control that will make it far harder for Americans to get their guns.
It is becoming positively dangerous and unhealthy to be an American because gun violence is an omnipotent and omnipresent force in this country. The Founding Fathers who wrote the Second Amendment would cringe and weep for the loss of liberties this type of random violence sows. They will not be insane enough to believe that easy access to many types of rifles and guns for most Americans is the best guardian of our Bill of Rights.
Usha Nellore, Bel Air