Just when I think we are making progress in erasing some of the stigma attached to mental illness...
“Jesus loved crucifying me,” Cho Seung Hui, the
Virginia Tech mass murderer, said in a video he made before he killed himself last week. “He loved inducing cancer in my head, terrorizing my heart, and ripping
my soul all this time.” I am quoting from the Washington Post; I did not see the
video. I don't want to. I already know more than I want to about mental illness from firsthand experience.
And here we reach the point at which I might be expected to distance myself—to note that depression is very different from psychosis, or schizophrenia, or whatever it was Cho had; you can’t equate them. And in many ways you can’t. Psychiatry, inexact discipline that it is, makes a sharp distinction between mood disorders, which depression is, and thought disorders like schizophrenia. But they both fall under the broad rubric of “mental illness” and so as long as I identify myself as a person with a mental illness, I am associated with Cho, however distantly and unwillingly. And it is this association—or, more precisely, the fear of this association—that keeps so many people from ever mentioning their own mental pain or seeking help. In his rampage, Cho has not only struck down scores of promising young lives; he also fortified that barbed wire fence which has existed for so long between anyone who suffers any form of mental agony and the possibility of surcease and help.
Mental illness is often associated with evil
acts, especially when it hits the front page. It's an aberration of the
natural order; its association with evil is no accident. Usually, however, the
evil it fosters is primarily turned inward—like the decision made by a
person in the depths of depression to harm him or herself. On the other hand,
mental illness has no corner on evil: plenty of perfectly sane people do evil
things every day. But when the cynical movie producer makes slasher films, or the drug-addicted doctor steals morphine from his patients, or the priest abuses little boys, we see these as discrete events. It’s only when an evil act
is committed by someone insane that his entire “nation”—i.e., the mentally
ill—get tarred with the same brush. And so it will be now. I
can already hear the phrases. “Nut case.” “Fruitcake,” “Shoulda been locked
up in the loony bin.” All the terms people will use in speaking of Cho are
terms people will live in fear of being applied to themselves. Mental illness
will be equated with violence, and violence will foster fear, and fear will
But Cho doesn’t represent my “nation,” any more than he represents, say, Koreans. And instead of viewing him as somehow representative of a special group, suppose we see him as a tormented young man who deliberately chose a path of destruction. Because, insane as he obviously was, he still had a clear choice; he referred to this explicitly. “I didn’t have to do it,” he said on the video. “I could have left. I could have fled."
If we can remember that he did not represent anything except himself, we can at least stop compounding the damage he caused. It's not much, in the face of so much devastation, but it would be something.