As students and parents struggled to grasp the enormity of what happened on the Blacksburg, Va., campus a day earlier, an expert warned yesterday that suppressing one's emotions could lead to deeper problems in months or years to come.
"You don't want to bottle up," said Dr. Jack Vaeth, a Sheppard Pratt psychiatrist who counsels college students. "It's the bottling up of emotion that's devastating over a lifetime."
Though Virginia Tech students were just beginning to avail themselves of counseling offered by the college and other groups, some sought the comfort of home or found solace talking to friends.
Freshman Ashley Burris lives on the fourth floor of the West Ambler Johnston dormitory, where the first two people in the rampage were killed. She said her brother, a junior, was next to Norris Hall as people emerged, covered in blood. The siblings went home Monday to Yorktown, Va.
"You see this stuff about Columbine, you see those families weeping, but somehow [this] seems more devastating," she said. "For most people, it just hasn't sunk in yet. It's really upsetting that someone would do that, and we won't be able to ever know why."
Students seemed to benefit from the instant communication of cell phones and the Internet. Expressions of support from around the globe flooded e-mail accounts and social networks such as Facebook.
"Everybody's e-mailing," said Sonia Wahbe, a freshman from Towson who lives in the Ambler Johnston dorm. "A lot of people from different schools said they were thinking about you, praying for you. It helps a lot."
"My phone was so busy I couldn't get all the calls I was receiving," said Wahbe, 18, who attends Tech with her twin, Elizabeth. "It felt really good having all the support from Baltimore."
The sisters decided to drive home yesterday to be with their family.
As wartime experiences have shown, people experiencing the same horrors can react differently, Vaeth said.
"You and I could be walking with a buddy between us who gets brutally shot," he said. "Your adjustment may be that this is war and an awful thing. Mine might be [a severe stress reaction] resulting in hospitalization and re-experiencing of trauma that could go on for years."
Typically, symptoms of acute stress disorder appear during a window of time beginning two days after the event and continuing for a month. People might feel tense, wake often during the night and startle easily, Vaeth said. They might also appear numb or detached.
Counselors may use a technique called critical incident stress debriefing, in which they encourage people to share what they experienced and how they feel.
"You get them together as soon as possible to talk about the situation," Vaeth said, adding that it helps to prepare people for the emotions that might lie ahead.
With treatment, about 20 percent of people who experience short-term stress will develop post-traumatic stress syndrome, a chronic condition that could last years. Without treatment, the figure rises to 80 percent, Vaeth said.
Some students said they weren't ready for counseling.
Kasey Arrington, a freshman from Virginia whose close friend Emily Hilscher was killed, said she felt it was too soon. Yet she admitted that she had a difficult time getting out of bed yesterday morning, remembering immediately that a friend she'd considered "so alive" had perished.
"I need to process everything before I can talk to anybody," she said.
Pegg Melfa, a nurse practioner at Towson University, fought back tears as she recounted learning of the tragedy Monday and then discovering that her daughter, Mackenzie, was safe. The 21-year-old had spent three or four hours locked down in a design studio.
"When I'm busy with my patients, I can set it aside," she said. "When I stop to think about it, when I'm in the waiting room looking at the convocation on TV, it's very upsetting."
Suzanne Martin, whose daughter Alison is a junior at Virginia Tech, drove from her home in Vienna, Va., to be with her daughter and three roommates who live in an off-campus apartment.
A former social worker, Martin said that she didn't know precisely what to say to them but knew that just "being there" would help.
Vaeth echoed the thought.
"It's like going to a funeral home and not knowing what to say," he said. "You don't have to say anything. Your presence is more valuable than any of the words you might say."
IF YOU NEED HELP
Toll-free information line for Virginia Tech students' parents and family members: 800-533-1144
To provide information regarding the incident: Virginia Tech police, 540-231-6411; Virginia Tech's Dean of Students Office: 540-231-3787
Counseling services at Virginia Tech
Students can call the school's Cook Counseling Center at 540-231-6557; mental health professionals who are interested in assisting the center are asked to e-mail their contact information to firstname.lastname@example.org instead of calling
Family Therapy Center of Virginia Tech: 540-231-7201
In Blacksburg area
New River Valley Community Services: 540-961-8400
Counseling Department of Family Service of Roanoke Valley: 540-563-5316
In Baltimore area
USA National Suicide Hotline: 800-784-2433
First Step Youth Services Center: 410-521-3800
Baltimore Crisis Response: 410-752-2272
Baltimore County Crisis Response: 410-931-2214
Community Crisis Services: 301-864-7130
Grassroots Crisis Intervention: 410-531-6677
Maryland Youth Crisis Hotline: 800-422-0009
TTY line for hearing impaired: 410-531-5086