Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Grand Rounds, and VTech Despite Myself

This week's Grand Rounds is up, and I'm pleased to be included.

Meanwhile, it's hard to get away from the Virginia Tech horror, even without television. This kind of thing is one reason Gary and I don't have TV; it's too easy to be traumatized by endless replays of tragedy, and it's too hard not to watch the damn thing if you have one.

I wouldn't want to be a campus official there right now. The first impulse in this kind of situation, especially when the killer's dead himself, is to hunt around for additional people to blame, to try to impose sense on an inherently senseless event.

Whatever the campus police did or didn't do wrong, the fact is that there's no way to make any college campus (or just about anywhere else, for that matter) completely safe. If somebody with a gun wants to kill people and doesn't care about dying himself, there's very little you can do to stop him. Although I support gun control, I'm not sure more of a non-gun culture in this country would help, either. Canada has fewer guns than we do, and one bulletin board I read noted that the closest parallel to the Virginia Tech massacre isn't Columbine: it's the Montreal Massacre of 1989 (although gender politics don't seem to have played a role in Blacksburg).

Another comment I read on a bulletin board, by a college professor, said simply, "What can we do to help students before they act out this way?"

Yes, exactly. There isn't much info on the gunman yet. We know his name (Cho Seung-Hui), age (23), major (English), and nationality (South Korean). I haven't seen any statements yet from anybody who knew him, and I don't know if he had family in this country. Gary said last night over dinner, "What do you want to bet that it will turn out everyone thought he was a nice kid: very quiet, kept to himself?"

Since the dark ages when I was in college, schools have become much more aware of the need for mental-health services and intervention. I've done my share of referring students to UNR's counseling services. But in my experience, female students are much more open to that kind of help than male students are; and in the Virginia Tech case, I suspect cultural factors would have made that even more true. Even if someone had figured out that Cho Seung-Hui needed help, would he have accepted it? Or would he have done that "Thanks, but I'm fine" thing that even the twitchiest young guys use when professors or friends say, "You seem unhappy, and I'm worried about you"?

In my twelve-plus years of teaching on college campuses, I can only remember one male student I succeeded in helping, and that was a battle for other reasons. For two years before I got the job at UNR, I taught at Stevens Tech in Hoboken, New Jersey. It's a very high-powered, high-pressure engineering school; I was teaching a required freshman/sophomore humanities sequence there, and my students routinely said things like, "You're the only professor on campus who knows my name." (This wasn't because my colleagues in the sciences were uncaring, but because it's very difficult to learn names in a 200-student lecture course.)

So I had this freshman. We'll call him Bob, although that wasn't his name. He was very bright, very sweet, and very at sea. In the first few weeks of the semester, from things he wrote in papers and from class comments, I pieced together that his parents were right-wing militant survivalists -- think ammo and cases of food in the basement -- and that he was under intense pressure to get straight As at this very difficult school. He gave a completely inappropriate class presentation on the United Nations as instrument of evil. In his best essay, he talked about how homesick he was and how much he missed his cat, whom he described in affectionate and charming detail. He missed his mom, too, but his attitude towards his father seemed to be mainly fear.

I tried to talk to him. He had blinders on: all he could see was his need to perform academically.

His personal hygiene went steadily downhill until mid-semester, when he showed up late for the midterm. While other students were writing their exams, he sat in a corner, glassy-eyed, alternately sucking his thumb and rubbing his crotch.

I called the Dean of Student Affairs office. Oh, yes: they knew about Bob. They'd gotten complaints about inappropriate behavior towards female students during freshman orientation.

Freshman orientation? That was weeks ago! Why hadn't anyone done anything since then?

Well, we've tried, but the counselor's only on campus two days a week, and we haven't been able to connect with Bob.

Bob stopped coming to class. I kept calling the Dean of Student Affairs office. They told me, vaguely, that they were working on it, and thanked me for my concern.

The final exam rolled around. Bob, amazingly, showed up -- again late -- for this test he was now completely unprepared to take. He was a mess, gaunt and ungroomed. He picked up the exam, looked at it, and burst into tears.

I pulled him out of the room. We sat on a bench across the hall, and I hugged him while he sobbed and hiccupped about how he couldn't sleep, couldn't eat, how he was failing all his classes. I told him he sounded depressed, and that depression's a medical illness. He told me his parents were going to kill him. I told him that if his parents needed to talk to someone about how hard it is to adjust to college, they could call me.

Meanwhile, I was trying to figure out what to do. This was just before the era of cell phones. I couldn't call anyone. I didn't know where I could take Bob, especially since I was supposed to be proctoring an exam.

By the grace of God, the secretary of the humanities department walked by just then, and did a doubletake when she saw me. I said, "Call the Dean of Student Affairs and tell him to get somebody down here right now."

The Dean of Student Affairs himself showed up about three minutes later and gently led Bob away. I later learned that Bob had been hospitalized for two weeks for acute depression. I have no idea what happened to him after that. I hope he was, and is, okay.

I suspect that Stevens has gotten savvier and more proactive about student mental health since then; I certainly hope they have at least one full-time counselor, if not more. But Bob succeeded in getting help both because he was very evidently in distress and because a faculty member was advocating for him. I suspect he knew, on some level, that I wanted to help him; that's probably why he came to the final.

At UNR, we have a staff of full-time counselors, 24-hour hotlines, and training for faculty in dealing with disturbed and disturbing students. Even so, it's very hard to help students who don't want to be helped, especially if they're clearly troubled but not having catastrophic academic problems.

All we can do, though, is to keep trying, and to safeguard our own mental health in the meantime.


  1. Whew. It must be tough to be a professor in a situation like that.

    "safeguard our own mental health in the meantime"


  2. What a painful, awful story. I suspect this is one area where working in a city church has given me some useful skills. I am far more likely to call 911 now if someone seems very out of touch and out of control, and because of the urban location the first responders have more experience with psych impairment than may be the case in less impacted areas. I hope the professor who tried to get the VT student into counseling is finding support and caring for herself. And I hope someone thanked you, Susan, for helping Bob.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Terri. My department chair at Stevens was very supportive and affirming.

    My heart goes out to that professor too -- and to the police who had the information and didn't, or couldn't, act on it.

  4. Canada can have all the gun control in the world, but it doesn't help if nuts can just drive over the border and buy a gun in a Walmart, no questions asked, and come back looking like a law-abiding citizen with the gun in their trunk.

  5. Hi Susan:

    I, too have had students with similar situations, and professors - even ones who are themselves healthcare providers - are not THOSE students' healthcare providers, and so what we (I) can do and are allowed to do by law, is very limited - and often ineffectual. The best we can do is to care, get involved, and continue to be present, to be available, and to convey acceptance - as you so eloquently described - to those who suffer.

    I remember in great detail those students because I felt so powerless to help, and because their suffering appeared so great.

    Thanks for writing about this. Those professors need support and healing, too, and they probably will get lost in the background.


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