It wasn’t part of her prepared remarks, but Prof. Lucinda Roy of Virginia Tech University may have offered an especially important point as she began her keynote address at a conference Wednesday at Eckstein Hall on mental illness commitment laws and other issues related to mental illness.
It had been an intense, and at times tense, morning before a full house of more than 200 in the Appellate Courtroom. Meg Kissinger, a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, described “Imminent Danger,” the large project she authored which ran in the newspaper in recent weeks. It described how a revolution in American mental commitment laws, which began with a federal court ruling in a case involving a West Allis woman in 1972, had led to far more people with mental illnesses living outside of mental institutions. Some of them refuse treatment and a few have committed violent acts.
Kissinger and the newspaper had been strongly criticized by some members of the audience who thought the series was sensationalistic and left people with a harmful and wrong image of those with mental illnesses as dangerous. One speaker, Tom Zander, a psychologist, lawyer, and long-time prominent advocate for alternatives to mental commitment, had sharply attacked the series as based on what he regarded as false premises, including the notion that the West Allis case had led to specific horrible crimes. (Zander is an adjunct professor at Marquette University Law School.)
Throughout the morning, which included presentations by experts and by family members of people who had long-term mental illnesses, the difficulties of dealing with mental illness, the failings of the current system for helping people, and the high emotions that the subject raises were clear.
Then it came time for the speech from Roy, who was the academic advisor at Virginia Tech to Seung-Hui Cho, the student who in 2007 killed 32 others on the campus before killing himself. In 2005, Roy spent a large amount of time dealing with Cho, who people in the English department where she taught thought was dangerous. She encouraged him to get treatment, but there was little that could be done to require him to do that. When he did seek counseling, and unrelated to Roy, his situation was not handled well by counselors at Virginia Tech. Roy later wrote a book, No Right to Remain Silent: The Tragedy at Virginia Tech.
Roy said she listened with mouth open to the prior speakers. She said she had respect for what the Journal Sentinel had done and for Kissinger, but she respected those who criticized the newspaper project. She said it was important to keep in the mind the great hostility that exists among many people across the United States to those with mental illnesses. She said she has gotten responses to her work from people who literally want to kill such people.
“You would be amazed at the antagonism and the ignorance and the prejudice that exists in this country,” she said. “One of the great things about this (conference), whatever our differences, and I know we differ from each other . . . But the one thing that is true in this room is that everyone who is here today cares about those who suffer from mental illness. There is no doubt in my mind about that.
“And if we can’t find some viable, creative solutions to some of the problems that are plaguing us, who can? Probably no one. So that is why we have to persevere even when we get impatient with each other.”
“We all come from a place of suffering” if we are involved in these issues, Roy said. “All of us understand something about this situation that needs to be shared.” She called on the people in the room to bring common sense and compassion to their dialog.
She said the Journal Series stories showed “there are more enlightened paths we could take,” including more community-based treatment programs that can help the large majority of those with mental illnesses.
At the same time, she said, more needs to be done to spot and to intervene with those who may be on the path to committing violent acts. Everyone acts like they are surprised when someone such as Cho goes on a killing spree, she said, but there are often people who shouldn’t have been surprised. She asked, “At what point does surprise become denial” that something might have worked to avoid tragedy?
There may be no way to stop all such tragedies, Roy said, but “there are windows of opportunity (to reduce the number), and they present themselves rarely.” She urged those who are involved to work together so that when those chances are presented, the response is successful. “It’s time for us all to respond together,” she said.
The conference was co-sponsored by the Law School and the Journal Sentinel. A video of the event can be viewed by clicking here.