Wednesday, April 18, 2007

What I'll be saying to my classes tomorrow

As my regular readers know, I was very much away from news sources on Monday, April 16, until the early evening because I was running the Boston Marathon. I do intend to blog about that, but I really didn't want to come back to the blog with a triumphant post about the potential of the human spirit and body, as if nothing else happened in the world while I was away.

And I particularly wanted to write something about the horrifying shooting at Virginia Tech first, not because I think I have something terribly enlightening or wise to say about it, but because this tragedy is directly related to my world and to the subject and purpose of this blog, academic life in the fullest sense of that phrase, and I feel some sense of duty to say something. So I'll tell you what I'll say to my students tomorrow, whom I haven't seen since last Thursday. The following is more "writerly" and more lecture-like than what I'll actually say, but the substance is the same.

I want to start class by talking about Cho Seung-Hui and the death of 33 people at Virginia Tech University on Monday, because it matters to us. Cho Seung-Hui was an English major, but that's not the only reason this tragedy matters to us; had he been a business major I'd still be talking to you. He was a student, and his victims were students and faculty members, and so are we, but that's still not the only reason his acts and their consequences matter to us. Cho Seung-Hui and his victims were human beings, and for that reason, this matters to all of us, as does any act of violence, injustice, deprivation, and degredation, even the ones the news media doesn't cover.

Many people in Cho Seung-Hui's world saw the signs of his mental instability and illness, and they tried to do something to see that he was cared for. According to what I've read in the NY Times and heard on NPR -- generally reliable sources -- he was referred to and even escorted to professional mental health facilities; the police were alerted; his roommates and classmates were aware that something was wrong; his teachers alerted various authorities and people who could help. He even had a prescription for anti-depressants. So why didn't he get the help he needed? What went wrong? Was Cho Seung-Hui too far gone to look after himself?

I have no idea, really. What follows is pure speculation. I wonder if the stigma attached to regular pscyhological and psychiatric treatment, especially for Americans, especially for men, had something to do with Cho Seung-Hui's not getting the thorough treatment he needed. Americans, and American men especially, live in a "boot strap" culture that values individualism, will power, toughness, self-reliance, and emotional stoicism, and reacts negatively to anything that is perceived as showing weakness, "unmanliness," or a need for others. I think college students -- women as well as men -- are susceptible to buying into this culture. You know you are. You don't seek help when you need it because you fear looking idiotic, or wussy, or, god forbid, needy. You tell yourself "I can handle this," when this is a 35-hour work week and a full course load, or a terrible break-up, or even grief at the loss of a loved-one. You convince yourself that you don't have time to grieve or deal with your problems, because graduation is around the corner and you have to, must, will, and shall graduate on time with the GPA of your dreams, and if not, you're convinced your life is over.

Listen to me. I am the poster child of misguided detemination and will power. I got a PhD and tenure track job; I run marathons; on Monday I ran the Boston marathon in 20mph winds and rain, with this damn cold. All good and admirable, right? But when my sister died, I took one freakin day off from my classes. Heck, it runs in the family: two weeks before that she was deeply apologetic that she couldn't after all make it to watch me run my hometown marathon, but she wanted me to know that she tried -- while she was dying of cancer.

But see, eventually I realized that for all the planning and training and determination, there are things that are out of my control, as well as out of yours. Loss is one of them. It's inevitable. Death's another. We all die. And certain conditions of mental and physical health are also out of your control. When my mother died and I couldn't sleep, no matter how "hard" I "tried," and when I was tormented by nightmares, I saw a mental health professional. And I kept seeing her until she decided, as a mental health expert, with my input, that I was functioning more normally.

If people ever tell you you need to seek help for depression or something more serious, get it and stick with it. A depressed or addicted or otherwise ill person is in little or no position to decide for themselves that they're OK, that they can simple "deal with it." There is no shame for seeking help for mental illness, any more than there's shame for getting treatment for a broken leg or bronchitis. These things are out of your control and your expertise, and that's OK. Tell this to the people in your life, too, so that they get it. Say it over and over again until they do.

I'm saying this especially for those of you -- men and women -- really taken in by the idea that you have to "handle" things on your own, that extreme stress is "just a phase" or "natural" for college students. But I'm especially saying this for the men, especially you midwestern men, because, in general, you're the least likely to get the help you need. It's not a weakness to seek help; spin it differently. In a culture that expects men to be stoic superheroes, overcoming that stereotype and seeking help actually takes a lot of strength.

Sorry to go on and on, but it matters. Is there anything you would like to say?


Flavia said...

This is really lovely, Dr. V., and important. Thanks for sharing it with us.

Tommy said...

Well said, V, well said!

Another concern for a lot of folks in treating mental illness is the side effects of the medications. I have a couple of friends who're currently being treated for depression and after getting their regimens worked out and sticking with it for a while, they both came to the realization that the biggest side effect is that "I don't feel bad all the time anymore!" It's a shame that this didn't happen in Cho Seung Hui's case (I could also mention a thing or two about gun control, but that's another comment for another blog).

Now... When are ya gonna tell us about the damn marathon??!!

Anonymous said...

I am glad that someone is willing to shout this from the rooftops... There is such an atmosphere of fear around in 'modern, civilised society' about mental illness, mild or strong - even to the point where criminality is viewed in a better light.

Those of us who have never suffered from a form of mental illness have simply won a genetic and social lottery. There is no superiority involved, and there certainly should not be fear. We are so afraid of 'institutions' that we attempt to keep those members of our society who do need help within public life, when they would often be liberated by an element of control. Perhaps we need to look more at the solutions than the taboos.

Wonderful post, bless you.

Ancrene Wiseass said...

*nods vigorously*

I'm glad you're talking to your students about this. Honestly, a lot of students might be needing counseling right now, just to process what happened at VT.

And, yeah, the stigma against seeking help is even stronger for men--and I'd say it's particularly strong in the Korean immigrant community.

Unknown said...

That is a very nice thing to say and I think very important. None of my profs even mentioned it :(

I'm looking forward to your thoughts on the marathon!

Anonymous said...

Now I feel especially bad that I didn't talk about this with my students yesterday (my MWF students and I did talk about it some on Monday, even though we knew less about it at the time).

But I totally agree with what you say here. When I was at Rural Utopia, one of my colleagues committed suicide. Now, this colleague was not from the United States, and I think their culture is even less open to talking about such things than we are in the US, so there was a lot of speculation and mystery before we were all sure that this was what had actually happened. This colleague's sibling came to speak at a memorial service and acknowledged the suicide, but only obliquely (it was nonetheless one of the most heart-wrenching things I've ever heard anyone talk about).

The reason I bring this up is that what frustrated me most about the situation was that almost no one was willing to say anything about this colleague's depression. There was NO mention ANYWHERE of the cause of death, for instance. Now, I understand respecting the wishes of the family (for whom I think it was something of a source of shame), but we had a lot of students with problems on that campus (well, they're on every campus), and it seemed that there was really a missed opportunity to say directly to students, "This happens. Depression can happen to anyone - even someone who seems as together as your professors. It's okay to admit this. If you're suffering like this, GET HELP. TALK to us, someone."

(I blame myself, too, because I certainly didn't know how to go about doing this, though I'll say that my senior colleagues really kind of set the tone - I never once heard any of them refer to this as a suicide.)

The Pastry Pirate said...

What you said.

I'm glad you took the time to talk to your students about it and, dare I use a cliche, to "be real" about it. The employee cafeteria tv is tuned to Fox News and I've heard waaaay too much speculation through it about how it was because he was Korean, or because he liked heavy metal, or this or that. No, it was because he was mentally ill and didn't get the help he needed.

Be safe. See you soon.

kfluff said...

This is a powerful take on one of the issues activated by the events at VT, and a sympathetic and rational one to present to students. To follow up on New Kid's comment, it's particularly true that Asian Americans have a hard time seeking treatment [good info here:]

Good luck with your students--they're lucky to have you!

Anonymous said...

Proud of you.

How did it go?

The Constructivist said...

This moved me a lot--in part b/c I am not a regular enough reader to know you lost your sister to cancer. So how did the students respond to it?