Mental Health Records for Virginia Tech Shooter Finally Found

One of the photographs of Seung-Hui Cho that h...
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They escaped the notice of two separate investigations, but the mental health records for Seung Hui Cho, who on April 16, 2007 shot and killed 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech, have been found. They were in the home of the former director of the university’s counseling center, and only came to light, reports today’s Washington Post thanks to pre-trial discovery for lawsuits launched by the families of several of his victims.

The Post reports:

“Lucinda Roy, a Virginia Tech English professor who encouraged Cho to get counseling, said the late and mysterious reappearance of the records adds to concern that the university has been more concerned with preserving its reputation than with providing the public with a thorough account of how Cho’s case was handled.

Roy said she had been in frequent contact with Miller about Cho’s violent writings, flat affect and disturbing behavior. “He seemed to be a caring individual and responsive to problems, even though I was very disappointed that the counseling center could not have been more proactive,” she said. “It was always puzzling to me that they couldn’t find the records and there was not a huge push to try to find them.”

Parents of his victims are understandably furious it has taken so long and wonder why.

“The words that come to mind are coverup, collusion, obstruction,” said Mike Pohle, whose son was killed in the shootings. “I’m spinning. Who knows what could be in those records? But this is just potentially more information that says: Virginia Tech, you failed to do your job.”

Pohle and Suzanne Grimes, whose son was wounded and still has a bullet in him, said the revelation might call into question the $11 million settlement that all but two families of victims signed with the university. “It just infuriates me that all of a sudden now, these records have magically appeared from a former director,” she said. “When you retire, you take the pictures off the wall. You don’t take records. It doesn’t make sense. And it raises a whole new set of questions about accountability for Virginia Tech.”

One-third of American homes contain a firearm. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 5 to 8 percent of Americans — about 14 million — are suffering from depression, which is why more than 50 percent of gun deaths are suicides, as this was after multiple murders. The correlation between mental illness, the privacy of health records and gun ownership is messy, opaque and one of the greatest challenges the U.S. faces in attempts to reduce gun-related violence and death.

7 thoughts on “Mental Health Records for Virginia Tech Shooter Finally Found

  1. “The correlation between mental illness, the privacy of health records and gun ownership is messy, opaque and one of the greatest challenges the U.S. faces in attempts to reduce gun-related violence and death.”

    I don’t see why there can’t be a system where mental health workers could put people on a gun “do not sell” list without having to be very specific as to what the mental health issues are. If the patient wishes they could then challenge their name being placed on this list in a court of law in a manner that would protect their privacy.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    Tricky. What happens if/when you recover from depression — but your name is still on that list? Who keeps the list and enforces it? How do you get your name off the list? Efforts to get physicians to discuss gun ownership as a risk factor with their patients is challenging enough as they do not want to be seen to be invasive of that privacy. But it seems someone has to, somehow, somewhere, if we’re to address this.

  3. Not to be the Devil’s Advocate. . .wait, who I am kidding?

    Devilishly advocating:

    1. I can see mental health groups arguing against an ATF “list” because of potential stigma. Such a list would on its face suggest that someone battling anxiety or any other mental illness, of one degree or another, is less equal than a “sane” American (who would they be?) under the eyes of state laws and the Constitution. Gun ownership or lackthereof, they would say, should not be a visible indicator of one’s mental health.

    2. I can see pro-gun groups and veterans’ groups arguing that Constitutional rights cannot succumb to the subjectivity of one doctor’s diagnosis over another.

    Brian — I’ve known and interviewed a few ATF guys over the years, and found them very personable and knowledgeable. But the mere mention of the ATF sends firearms retailers into fits. ATF paperwork is one thing that everyone complains about. An ATF “mental health list” would bring about an apoplectic reaction.

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    1. You can insist upon every right in the world — i.e. the right to keep a gun in your home while mentally ill — and still end up dead or criminal because you committed suicide or homicide. This doesn’t help you, your family or society at large.

    In my book, I refer to one of the most powerful and wealthy Americans and how this issue affected her — Kay Graham, former publisher of the Washington Post. As you may know, her husband suffered severe mental illness. He came home from the hospital, had lunch om their terrace, went into the bathroom and shot himself. She never forgave herself for not foreseeing this. But how about his doctors?!

    If so many Americans own guns (they do) and so many Americans suffer severe depression or other mental illness (they do), and those who suffer a severe depression or mental illness can become a danger to self and others (they do), at what point do we stop focusing (so American!) on individual rights as immutable under the worst conditions and find a way to take action to protect those people (even temporarily) and those around them from potential firearm-related harm?

    I take your larger point; it seems impossibly messy but most problems are.

    2. I agree with you that there would be plenty of opposition. The larger goal is to prevent harm. Look at the appalling waste of life with massacres at schools, workplaces, etc. We should all just keep shrugging? Every time one occurs, there’s a cry of “Better gun control!” when it seems it isn’t the guns, per se, that need better control but the access to those guns by people who are going to cause mayhem.

    3. You’re right about ATF. I do not think the ATF would be the right choice on this issue; a commission/agency?

    It’s all tricky, tough stuff. But what serious policy issue isn’t?

    1. That was my real point — the larger point: how tricky and messy it all is and could further become. But I don’t mean to imply that we don’t wade into the mess when necessary.

      In a situation like the Graham case, anyone in the know — family, friends, and physicians — could and should act, in an intervention-like manner. That is, locate any firearms, and confiscate them. This isn’t a police matter, necessarily. But it would literally require a search of the person’s residence, vehicle, and anywhere else he or she could hide a gun. In any other circumstances, this might be a violation of trust and privacy, but in the case of severe mental illness, it’s a necessary way of addressing potential danger. Who leaves booze in the house of an alcoholic?

      Your point about controlling access is key, because what if the severely depressed person who has never owned a gun steals one out of a shed, garage, or basement, and the owner doesn’t immediately notice? Well, the owner shouldn’t have allowed for such access, if he or she has any inkling of the mental state of their friend.(I think a suicidal/homicidal person who doesn’t have a gun would first try to take one from an easy source — a friend or relative.)

      Gun owners are the first tier of access-control in such circumstances. They most certainly DO have the responsibility of keeping unauthorized access to zero. States can pass all sorts of laws about that (trigger locks, etc.) but the firearms owner must realize his or her moral responsibility to control all access.

  5. Caitlin Kelly

    Do you believe, and maybe this key, that gun-owners do realize this moral responsibility and act accordingly? I’d like to think so, but I’m not persuaded.

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