Sometimes it takes an unspeakable tragedy to wake us up as a society. Sometimes a bad situation simmers so quietly for so long that no one notices until it turns to a boil, and by then it's too late.
Consider the example of Seung-Hui Cho, both as an individual and as a microcosm of something much larger. Mr. Cho was a brooding, intensely quiet student at Virginia Tech. Nobody saw the pressure building up inside of him until April 16, 2007, when he murdered 32 students and teachers in a campus shooting rampage and then took his own life.
Similarly, larger issues involving mental health — both on college campuses and in our state — had been neglected for too long. Just as in the case of Mr. Cho, there had been warning signs that seemed innocuous before the fact but terribly obvious in retrospect.
That 20/20 hindsight does nothing to bring back the lives that have been lost, including the life of Mr. Cho himself, whose family no doubt grieves for him still and whose death was tragic in a different way than those whom he gunned down. But it allows us, if we are diligent, to focus our vision straight ahead and apply what we have learned toward policies and measures that could prevent such incidents in the future, or at least minimize their scope.
Campuses today take important steps to recognize potentially dangerous situations before they explode, and specific protocols are in place to respond if violence does erupt. There are indications that our commonwealth is serious about its commitment to improving resources around the state. If this is true, then we have learned a lesson that came with a terrible price tag.
An investigative panel assembled by then-Gov. Tim Kaine noted several factors that played roles in the Tech tragedy — the state's lax gun laws and inattention to mental health issues, as well as inadequate awareness on the part of professors, counselors and administrators both before and after the shooting rampage began. They were not to blame, but if they had better information and preparation, things might have gone differently.
While no system is perfect at detecting an unstable mind or predicting a sudden, shocking outburst of violence, there is reason to believe that we are much better prepared in 2017 than we were a decade ago.
Colleges now use campuswide distribution lists to send alerts by both text and email at the first sign of serious trouble. Faculty and staff members receive training on how to recognize a potentially troubled student, and how to respond. Protocols are developed for lockdown situations, and drills are held to prepare. To use words spoken by Hampton University police Chief David Glover about the HU campus, schools have "adopted a proactive rather than reactive posture." That's a very good thing.
Six-and-a-half years after Virginia Tech, our commonwealth and its General Assembly were rocked again when Creigh Deeds, a popular and influential state senator, was stabbed multiple times by his mentally ill son. Just days earlier, a judge had attempted to involuntarily commit 24-year-old Gus Deeds, but when no hospital beds were available, he was sent home without treatment. After attacking his father, he took his own life by gunshot.
That incident caused the GA to redouble efforts to increase state resources dedicated to mental health. Annual budgeting in that area was about $150 million in 2007; today it is more than $200 million and projected to gradually reach $400 million within five years.
That increase in funding makes it possible for the critically important community services boards to handle the screening and monitoring processes in a timely manner. The ultimate goal is for those CSBs to handle enough of the caseload that our overburdened state hospitals will be able to take on the most severe cases.
The state is dealing with the heavy consequences of haphazardly sticking the mentally ill in prison as a way to buy time until more appropriate accommodations are available.
So where do we go from here?
The answer to that question comes down to priorities — the legislature's and our own as citizens. We need to make clear, with actions and donations and votes, that a safety net is in place to protect the most vulnerable among us.
Additional money is being budgeted. It needs to be spent efficiently, and in a manner that makes for clear oversight. At least some of our state mental hospitals that were closed need to be reopened. And the community service boards — which deal with these issues in the most direct way, affecting the most citizens — must be adequately funded and staffed.