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Virginia Tech Panel Raises Questions About Mental Health, Law

An investigation into the Virginia Tech shootings criticized the university for failing to respond to the behavior of Seung-Hui Cho and for communication problems. Two mental health experts explain the legal challenges of providing information about students' mental conditions.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Now, more about those questions surrounding mental health and the law, and to Jeffrey Brown.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And for that, we turn to David Shern, president of Mental Health America, a not-for-profit group that represents patients, professionals and families; and, Dr. Anthony Lehman, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

    Well, Dr. Lehman, the report — and Tom Ridge just now talked of various points where there were breaks in the information chain, one between high school, where a lot of people seem to be involved and active with Mr. Cho, and college, where suddenly no one knew anything at first. Is this common? And what should be done to address it?

    DR. ANTHONY LEHMAN, University of Maryland School of Medicine: Well, I think it is common, and I would say I was very impressed by the report and its thoroughness and its fairness. The general story, I think, that we see here is the problems of what we call transition-age youth. These are kids who have a significant amount of emotional problem when they're growing up and often have access to good services in the school systems and the mental health system while they're minors.

    But once they reach age 18, two things happen. The first is the service system available to adults is often nowhere near as good as it is for children. And, secondly, because the person's now an adult, they have more autonomy in deciding who can be involved, so in this particular case, for example, this young man's parents, who obviously were very significant support for him.

    And so it is a common story to have these folks have this problem at this transition between adolescence and adulthood and the loss of the support network that helped them get there.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And, David Shern, once he's in college, there is what we heard from Tom Ridge and we heard it all day long in this report, no one is connecting the dots. How can that be?

  • DAVID SHERN, President, Mental Health America:

    Well, you know, it's actually very common, in terms of the mental health system, for people to enter at various points, to receive care, and to be discharged with the expectation that they'll continue care in another point and often not to make those connections themselves.

    And oftentimes the system, as Dr. Lehman just pointed out, doesn't assertively or aggressively reach out to engage persons in care, particularly people who are having a really hard time, as Cho obviously was.

    It was pretty clear — and I agree with Tony Lehman — I was also very impressed with the thoroughness of the report. It was clear that Cho's problems were identified early and that he received care in secondary school that was effective for him. But that transition didn't occur to college. And, as Governor Ridge said, no one connected the dots, and this happens lots of times in public mental health systems.

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