The Virginia Tech shooting hit near and dear to the heart of all Americans. The aftermath of this tragedy has left many people searching...
The Virginia Tech shooting hit near and dear to the heart of all Americans. The aftermath of this tragedy has left many people searching for answers as to why Seung-Hui Cho went on this killing spree and whether his horrible rampage could have been prevented. What can people learn from this incident and how can this experience be used to make communities stronger? Two important thoughts come to my mind.
First, the stigma associated with mental illness needs to be reduced. Although many people have characterized Cho as having a sick and twisted mind, it is evident that he was mentally ill and potentially had one or more psychiatric diagnoses (e.g., schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder, antisocial personality disorder, etc.). Although not enough is known about him to make an accurate diagnosis, we do know that the stigma of mental illness prevents people from getting the help they need.
This problem is particularly salient for collectivistic cultures in which social interactions and public image play an influential role in determining people’s behaviors. Asian Americans evidence a strong stigma toward mental illness and as a consequence are less likely to seek the help they may need. This must change if Asian Americans, as well as other ethnic Americans, are going to strengthen their communities and provide people with effective mental-health services. It is also imperative to educate communities about mental illness and its treatment by demystifying cultural stereotypes, correcting misinformation and clarifying misconceptions.
More generally, individuals who have a mental illness often feel embarrassed, afraid that others may judge them and unsure about what is happening to them. In cases where the illness involves extreme paranoia, those affected sometimes don’t want any help because health-care providers are incorporated into their delusions and can be seen as allying with those who are out to get them. In these situations, families are a very important safety net. Their intervention and support can sometimes mean the difference between life and death, or in this case mass murder. However, given the nature of many mental illnesses, even the most supportive families need professional help.
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Unfortunately, families are also victims of stigma. Public embarrassment, loss of face and fear of community reactions inhibit them from taking the necessary steps to deal with mental illness. Stigma toward mental illness is a societal value and families and individuals respond to these values based on very real feelings. Until these societal values can be changed, those suffering from mental illness will continue to delay seeking help until their problems get intolerably worse — or will not get any help at all.
Second, as part of the most multicultural country in the world, Americans must show solidarity and act in the best interest of all our people by teaching and practicing racial tolerance. After the shooter was identified as being Asian or Asian American, many people within the various Asian American communities had the reaction, “I hope he wasn’t one of us.”
Why do ethnic minorities in the U.S. have this kind of reaction following such an incident? Why don’t white Americans have the reaction of “I hope he wasn’t white”? In addition, why did so many individuals, organizations, and community organizations feel apologetic and issue condolences? Why were Koreans afraid that diplomatic relations would be hurt and why did Korean Americans fear that their businesses and communities would be harmed?
The answer can be found in racial threats, hate crimes and violence toward Asian Americans before the incident and the increase immediately following. Racism in the U.S. still exists and it has very real consequences for ethnic-minority communities. After the Columbine shootings, for example, there was no increase in racial violence toward white Americans. Governmental agencies of European nations did not issue public condolences, nor were white Americans afraid of racial backlash. Does this mean that Asian Americans are still not accepted as Americans or that being “American” is still synonymous with being “white”? There isn’t a clear answer to these questions.
It is clear, however, that real and perceived racism is still a part of American society and there is much work to do before our country can be truly racially accepting. Our darkest prejudices are often ignited during stressful times and entire communities must not be held responsible for the actions of an individual.
As Americans, we all play a significant role in the evolution of our social and societal values. Educators, community-based organizations, influential public figures, role models, governing bodies, parents, students — they must all take initiative in making our country a better place. Let us mourn our losses, but from the wake of this tragedy, let us all take responsibility and make the U.S. a better place for all of our people. Let us educate our communities about mental illness and reduce the stigma associated with seeking help. Let us bring all Americans together by valuing ethnic differences and recognizing that cultural acceptance is a better option than racial conflict.
Wei-Chin Hwang is a professor of psychology at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.