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Breaking Down the Wall of Compassion

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The following editorial by Deepak Chopra appeared today in the Baltimore Sun

While listening to the flood of coverage about the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, I caught a comment from an English professor, Lucinda Roy, who taught the student gunman. Ms. Roy spotted that Cho Seung-Hui was extremely disturbed. She had read his violent fantasies in English class, and although many others detected an isolated, withdrawn loner, she realized how serious the situation was. She feared that Mr. Cho was suicidal, and took steps to help him.

In that regard, Ms. Roy was singular in her compassion. "There are seriously disturbed students here," she noted. "If only we could help them without being sued."

This last part is what caught my attention. While the media focus on increasing campus security and learning how to spot potential "shooters," the real problem is the wall against compassion that we have raised in this society. Mr. Cho had been sent to counselors, issued warnings by the police and spent brief periods in mental institutions for evaluation. But the system let him down for fear that if pressure was put on a student to take help, whether he wanted to or not, parents could bring litigation.

We have no equivalent of Good Samaritan laws where mental illness is concerned. Such laws were passed to protect physicians who stopped to help victims of auto accidents, only to be sued later if the victims died.

It saddens me that so much of the discussion now centers on giving the authorities a freer hand to confine someone who is potentially violent. Currently, the word "potential" has no weight under the law. Someone such as Mr. Cho, with his history of stalking female students and expressing his rage in student papers, slips through the cracks unless he is a clear and present danger - not just a potential one.

Legal issues weren't the only wall that separated Mr. Cho from compassion. Dorm mates who lived only a few feet away left him alone. This is common. Teens and young adults aren't supposed to recognize the signs of mental illness, and they themselves often want to be left alone. But when I asked a psychiatrist friend what went wrong here, he said, "Nobody really knows how unhappy someone else is." That's especially true in school, where a deeply depressed person such as Mr. Cho usually doesn't elicit compassion but is singled out for being different.

There probably was a wall around Mr. Cho at home, too. Profilers tell us that lone gunmen of his type come from every background. We may imagine that Mr. Cho was the victim of abuse, but that isn't necessarily the case. He wouldn't be the first adolescent male shut up in his room, lost in a world of video games and fantasy. (In a chilling side note, the Glock 9mm gun that was one of Mr. Cho's weapons - and also was used at the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 - is a favorite in violent video games because it looks cruelly cool.) Even the closest family members can pass over deep suffering in their midst. Mr. Cho was the victim of isolation - his own, and perhaps that of those in the house who didn't notice and reach out to him.

The final wall against compassion was silence itself. Mr. Cho rarely spoke. In high school, his classmates would place bets to see who could make him utter even a syllable. On one occasion, someone even tried to pay him $10 to say hello. Mr. Cho's habitual response was more silence, averted eyes and an eerie smile. Behind this wall, his mind must have been screaming in torment, and eventually that torment had to find release. We all mourn the result.

I feel strange using the word "victim" to describe Mr. Cho. There has been an angry backlash over the vast amount of media attention given to him. Short of being glorified, Mr. Cho has attracted the notoriety he sought through his video rants.

But for all the years before he ran amok, Mr. Cho was a victim - of mental torment, social rejection and the inability of others to reach through to him. One on-air psychiatrist pointed out that Mr. Cho's kind of violent outbreak isn't true psychosis but a sudden break from reality that is usually brief and treatable with drugs. On the one hand, I'm glad to hear this, because America is beset by lone gunmen, and we tend to call them criminals first and mentally ill second. But when this latest shocker fades from the front pages, the walls against compassion will still exist.

The national conscience has struggled with an adolescent male culture where violence is a recreational outlet and where music and games glorify outrageous antisocial acting out. We don't value compassion enough, mistakenly feeling that disturbed or even normal young males don't want or deserve our loving intervention. They do.

Privacy shouldn't be an excuse for our fear that someone else's depression and rage might be contagious, or too much to face, or shameful in the context of a happy family. All three excuses kept Mr. Cho on the other side of the wall. Mental illness remains stigmatized, a tragic irony given the vast number of Americans who suffer from some form of depression and anxiety. As a society, we must bring the wall down, not just to avoid another massacre but also to heal the most endemic hurt in America: pervasive loneliness.

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