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Mental Health Counseling: Urgent Treatment for a Nation in Recession

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Xin Yang, a graduate student in accounting from Beijing, China, arrived on the Virginia Tech campus Thursday, January 8. Two weeks later she was decapitated by a fellow Chinese graduate student while having coffee in the Au Bon Pain eatery located in the Graduate Life Center student housing building.

Though brand new to the United States, Yang had already become involved in social activities for new international students, which is how she met Chinese doctoral student, Haiyang Zhu of Ningbo, China. As reported by the Associated Press, Virginia Tech is home to about 500 Chinese students and Zhu, who was majoring in agricultural and applied economics, was reported to be assisting Yang in "adjusting to life at Tech." The director of Cranwell International Center, Kim Beisecker, described Yang as "a very sweet woman" and Zhu as a "a polite young man."

So far media reports have not revealed many clues to the mental state of the doctoral student who is now charged with first-degree murder. The witnesses who were in the café at 7 p.m. that Wednesday, January 21 did not hear any outbursts or arguments before the attack. Just one report I read revealed a clue into Zhu's state of mind at the time of this horrifying act. A man with the same name blogged on a Chinese language Web site in early January that the economic crisis was so upsetting to him that he felt like killing someone. Some reports have said Zhu may have also developed an attraction for Yang that was not reciprocated.

This story was reported as something like a gory spectacle. A Canadian paper referred to the Virginia Tech campus as "infamous" and the Associated Press ran a story with the headline, "Decapitation stuns violence-scarred campus." Two of my nieces graduated from that outstanding university with honors in finance and mechanical engineering. They would like to believe, as I do, that Hokie Nation stands for more than violence. We all witnessed that campus come together as a result of the multiple shootings in 2007. It was testimony to the collective sense of loyalty and community at Virginia Tech.

It is not Virginia Tech that is violence-scarred, though we of course can never forget April 16, 2007. We all are scarred by such violence precipitated by someone in imminent need of mental health intervention.

The story about Yang and Zhu, though grisly in detail, is all too normal when one considers how unhealthy our mental nation state is. We don't do nearly enough to provide the proper social services and mental health counseling to those who need it, and yet every day we hear about more layoffs and continued downward sliding in our global economy that could very well lead to more violent behavior.

As an educator who teaches politics and global communications, I don't often think about my role and function as a counselor, but over the years I've felt a need for some type of counseling training. Some students seem more stressed than ever. They are often overextended with both jobs and coursework overloads. Many of them look too serious or worried. I feel for them but I'm often at odds in how to counsel them because that is not my profession. Nevertheless, I am often on the front lines of recognizing something is amiss. I recall a young man I taught a few years ago who was enrolled in two of my classes. I generally taught at night until almost 10 p.m. He made it a point to wait until I was leaving the classroom to follow right on my heels. He would often not say a word, but would follow closely behind me. Though I didn't think he was violent-prone, his behavior was odd and disconcerting. I decided to talk to some colleagues who knew him and they shared a sense of unease. When I approached our dean of student affairs, I was told that privacy laws prevented my knowing if this young man had any diagnosed mental health problems or any history of violence. One has to be in imminent danger of being hurt by that person in order for information to be released. I felt completely helpless in the situation and did my best to start leaving my classroom in the company of others.

In his inaugural speech last week, President Obama paid high praise to our nation's veterans and their public sacrifices on the battlefield. One of the official balls, Commander-in-Chief, was devoted to the veterans of America. All of this was a magnanimous gesture by the commander-in-chief. Left out of that deserved respect and appreciation was a recognition that many of these young men and women are returning home to a country that does not offer nearly enough treatment in mental health. We are much better at fixing bleeding wounds than scarred hearts.

When are we going to recognize that good health is as much mental as it is physical? Oprah, are you listening?

"Under Pressure" by Queen