America: Angry, Violent and Depressed

The Virginia Tech shooting evoked a great deal of personal emotion because my son was a senior in a Jefferson County high school on April 20th, 1999. It was pure chance that it was not Columbine. He had wrestled and been to a band competition there. He played the same video games and listened to the same music as the perpetrators. He was a jock who spent a lot of time in the library. His name is Daniel*.

I remember feeling like the kids who felt the bullets whiz past their heads. The first news I saw was in a patient’s home. As a visiting nurse I spent the rest of the day trying not to watch what was happening on every TV in every home I went to. I knew it was not my son’s school and that the rest of the schools had been secured. The video picture I cannot forget is of the students trying to get out from windows, photographed from the news choppers.

The rest of the story is playing out in very similar ways. Who is to blame? Why wasn’t it prevented? How could anyone do this?

They all seem like disconnects from the reality I find so disturbing every day. We are a country that has made violence a culturally accepted form of resolving conflict. We may talk about anger management but we seem to find plenty of reasons to joke about it or simply deny that specific incidents or trends are adding up to a disturbing whole. The news media has started interviewing experts about how stress creates depression and how stressed out (and depressed) we are as a nation. In all of the hype over Imus’ remarks, the most unbelievable news cast was Glenn Beck interviewing himself after he talked to the ususal cast of pro and con guests. Of all the hypocritical positions, the only thing that could have really made it the lowest of lows would have been Ann Coulter as one of the guests.

This is a country that pushes a lot of drugs for depression and mental illness. Try getting an urgent appointment with a counselor before a bad situation becomes an emergency. Psychiatric problems in 17- 25 year olds only recently became better understood due to new research on brain changes that begin at the end of the last major brain growth period from 14 – 16. It is very early research that needs a lot of follow up. That would mean money. Not for drugs.

Just what is it about this situation that is really so surprising? What kind of counseling and follow up is actually available in school systems? Is that too much money to put in the budget? Too much ‘fat’? As opposed to what we spend developing the skills of the guys who will eventually be hired by the NFL, AFL, NBA, etc? How adequately is mental illness diagnosis and treatment covered in this country for the people who HAVE health insurance? Are we really promoting diversity and tolerance when we want other nationals to ‘assimilate’?

Yesterday my 22 year old daughter and I spent the morning together and were talking about the problems so many other kids have staying out of trouble and resisting peer pressure. She again talked about how surprised she was to find out her classmates did not have family dinners. How one of her high school English teachers had asked for a show of hands on who had a sit down family dinner on most nights. Lauren* was the only one to raise her hand. The teacher actually questioned her about it. After she explained how long and reliably we had done this – even labeling the nature of the conversation ‘open forum’ – did he admit we were still practicing what has largely disappeared from American family life. No matter what the TV commercials would have us believe. Not too long ago, Safeway had ads on their milk cartons advocating family dinners in support of a national program on this.

After she left, I found out about the shooting. I watched the news reports for about an hour because the Virginia Tech press briefing started shortly after I tuned in. Then I did what I had learned from Oklahoma City and Columbine. I turned off the TV. Which is what the professionals talking about coping with stress have recommended for 9/11, Katrina and this event. Saturation or immersion only makes it worse.

The response of the Campus and other police will automatically be reviewed and I am not willing to question their decisions yet. Being familiar with emergency situations and college campuses, two hours to send out emails does not seem especially unreasonable. (Gov Corzine going 91 mph on the interstate without a seatbelt is a lot more unreasonable – and far too common.) What I find intriguing is that the young man who had the cell phone video, including the shots fired, did not feel he was in much danger. He grew up in Palestine, on the West Bank. Gunfire and violence was a way of life he had been desensitized to. Despite all the information that was put out after Columbine and 9/11, no one seemed concerned enough about the shooter’s strange behavior to do much. Then again, we are a nation with only half the number of close friends we had 10 years ago. Being a loner is no basis for concern to many. Being a loner who barely interacts with roommates and others is something to just let be. Oh well.

Let me point to a situation here that is reported in a Denver Post article Road-rage killer unrepentant . This guy is not only unrepentent – blaming the media and a victim for his conviction and the accident – he had a history of doing the same thing for some years. Was it just a matter of time before two people lost their lives because of his aggressive driving?

The judge reminded Reynolds that he had received a letter from the Colorado State Patrol just six weeks before the fatal crash warning Reynolds that he’d been reported as a dangerous driver.

It is also a first of it’s kind case and conviction. I’m sure we will see more.

Though Boss and Norman died in a traffic crash, prosecutors, in a potentially precedent-setting trial, persuaded a jury that Reynolds’ aggressive driving was egregious enough to equate to first-degree murder with extreme indifference. After his conviction, he was certain to receive a mandatory sentence of two consecutive life terms.

There are a lot of things we could have been doing to promote healthier, less stressful life styles. That would have interfered with watching Seinfeld or American Idol . Life is an ongoing consequence of what we have and have not done.

*Among the Columbine victims, two were named Daniel, one Lauren.

Update: NYT has a very good overview on the psych aspects here: Taking a Break Between Shootings Is Unusual, but Not Unheard of, Experts Say

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9 Responses to America: Angry, Violent and Depressed

  1. Ginny: great points. But I wonder about “(Gov Corzine going 91 mph on the interstate without a seatbelt is a lot more unreasonable – and far too common.)”

    Please, for the love of the lord, tell me that he wasn’t rushing back to the NJ governor’s mansion to host the meeting between the Rutgers b’ball team and Don Imus. Please tell me our priorities aren’t *that* out of whack.

  2. Darrell Prows says:

    In another society, would the shooter have been the person in the Iraqi Parliment wearing as explosive vest?

    Reynolds wouldn’t. He’s much too self absorbed for that. Maybe one of our soldiers (or New York City cops) who thinks that no price is too great for others in the area to pay to ensure that he walks away alive every time. Is there any uglier term than “collateral damage”?

  3. Ginny Cotts says:


    That is exactly what Gov Corzine was doing. Our priorities are that out of whack. Around here, 80 or 90 miles an hour down I70 from a mountain McMansion to the six figure job in metro Denver is an old story. They just pay the fine.

    In the last few months I have had 2 patients who were thrown from a car because they weren’t wearing a seatbelt. One was the passenger, the driver was also not wearing a belt and thrown. He wasn’t our patient. The medical costs are astronomical.

    I wish, for the love of mankind, those weren’t the real story.

  4. Ginny Cotts says:


    I do think any really bad (life threatening) situation will foster human thinking to use what are desparate measures.

    I agree that Reynolds, Cho and terrorists all have very different reasons for their actions. Reynolds to me is the ugliest because he has no real cause for the type of aggressive, unsafe driving he was doing. He most likely has a personality disorder that might have responded to counseling. Whatever genetic predisposition he had for it, I suspect he landed with parents who did not have the awareness or support to find better ways to nurture him.

    I did not address Cho’s probable mental state enough. My reality is I personally know how depression utterly changes the thinking process. When those neuro transmitters are enough out of balance, this kind of action becomes something that actually makes perfect sense.

    Dealing with these random outbreaks in unpredictable, random places cannot be done by arming people. Despite the immediate cry about the students not being able to carry guns on campus, we also know some survived because individuals were able to find other ways to hinder Cho. Interesting that one of the ones who was able to contain his fear was a Holocaust survivor.

    Which brings two options to mind. The first is adequate mental health care. This has to include the kind of cancer awareness outreach for signs and symptoms. It should also stress that the change of neurotransmitter levels is a mix of genetics, experience and situation. That there are ways to overcome the changes in thought and feelings.

    The second is to stop the tendency to blow off the forewarnings. Personally, the degree to which this kid had been identified long before as having problems and needing help is the biggest red flag I can immagine. There were a few warnings on the Columbine killers that were less obvious.

    There are other things that are more cultural than government.

    Not supporting the industry of violence.
    Trying to learn better ways to reduce our own stress and to understand what we do that raises the stress level for people around us. Reynolds must have affected at least a few other drivers with raised adrenalin levels whenever he pulled his tailgating maneuvers.
    Nonviolent Communication. One of the best ideas you can use to decrease the stress in your relationships at home, work, etc.
    Learning how to control fear. If you haven’t seen V for Vendetta, it is a phenomenal movie on many issues. One of the important ones is fear.

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  7. Darrell Prows says:

    I once read about a guy who had a gift for bringing patients back to consciousness who were catatonic. Mostly no one else could do it at all and he could do it easily and quickly. Those few who are gifted like that seem to know things about mental illness, but pretty much all of the rest of us seem to be wandering in the wilderness. We’re barely scratching the surface on this stuff.

    Of course, lack of resources isn’t helping a bit. Our science ought to be able to tell who has what, and who needs what, but we’ve got a lot more work to do to get there.

    Maybe we don’t want to spend more on trying to figure out the human psyche because we’re afraid of what we’ll find in there.

    Or maybe we should just shortcut the process and allow people to have kids only after they’re able to pass a psychological profile. Go from wild west to civilized citizen in one generation.

  8. Angry isn’t even the right word to describe this kid. NBC has released some stuff they received by mail. It’s so hard to fathom this rage –

  9. Mike says:

    Thank God we have a war going on!
    Great opportunity to work out one’s aggression on a live human.

    Why else would any sane human sign up for multiple tours in Iraq?

    If they didn’t have a need to vent their anger at a world that they don’t understand?

    America is full of true believers-
    bored rebels without a clue.

    No sense of place,
    No sense of history,
    No sense of future.

    Lost souls with guns-
    shooting in the dark at other hopeless souls-
    that they might gather hope in death.