Special Segment: Campus copycats?

August 18, 2008 8:56:33 AM PDT
Following shootings at Northern Illinois University, Virginia Tech and Columbine, campus killings and threats of violence seem to be more common.Is there a copycat element to them?

In response to rampages like the one at NIU earlier in the year, the focus, in large part, has been on beefing up security, adding campus police, and text messaging as a way to alert people.

Mental health experts say while those measures are important, if we hope to prevent campus killings, there needs to be a major shift in the way we view the killers -- and what is driving them.

Just after 7 a.m. April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho began his shooting spree at Virginia Tech, killing 32 people before taking his own life.

Valentine's Day, 2008, Steven Kazmierczak shot and killed five people in Cole Hall on the NIU campus, and injured 17 others, before finally taking his life.

At an Amish school in Pennsylvania, and in several other school shootings, the gunmen all eventually committed suicide.

But we focus on the mass killings.

"Those are mass murders, but really what they are, are suicides preceded by mass murder," said Dr. Carl Bell of the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Bell, a psychiatrist, believes we have it backwards. To prevent more of these tragedies, he says we need to realize what they really are.

"What you've got in the Virginia Tech guy and all these other folk who commit suicide after they perpetuate the mass murder are people who are depressed and suicidal, and they're trying to make a big statement," he said.

Bell also believes if we would do more to target the mentally ill on college campuses with earlier, more effective treatment of depression, it might prevent a potential mass murderer from spiraling out of control.

"These are suicides -- suicidal people first, and homicidal secondly," said Dr. Morton Silverman of the University of Chicago.

Silverman agrees viewing it that way is a key to prevention. Seung-Hui Cho's behavior and writings alarmed professors and police. He was put through a commitment hearing and found to be potentially dangerous, but there was no follow-up to ensure he got treatment.

Steven Kazmierczak's parents and high school knew about his mental illness, which was schizophrenia. And he was reportedly obsessed with the shootings at Columbine and Virginia Tech. Still, he slipped through the cracks in college, and just weeks before his rampage, Kazmierczak took himself off the anti-depressant Prozac.

"Unfortunately, these particular people are not getting assistance that maybe could have made a difference in terms of counseling, and it results in these kinds of tragedies," said the Chicago School of Professional Psychology's Dr. Nancy Zarse.

Zarse says the campus killings have been a wake-up call. Colleges are reaching out now more than ever to troubled students. And while in the past, privacy concerns may have prevented parental notification, as was the case with Seung-Hui Cho, now faculty are being encouraged to speak up about students who worry them. That has resulted in greater demand for mental health services.

ABC7 Chicago wanted to ask Northern Illinois University about its response, but requests were turned down.

The campus has been hit with several graffiti threats since the rampage. In a statement, ABC7 was told:

"Excessive media coverage of campus threats clearly contributes to their proliferation...members of the news media are urged to limit reporting of these incidents as much as possible."

Dr. Bell believes there is a copycat element to the threats and shootings. He points out that there are already specific guidelines that the media follow because of the concern over suicide contagion. He also says he thinks similar guidelines might help reduce campus killings.

"When there's a suicide, you should not report where it happened, how it happened, what weapons were used, etc. because people will imitate that behavior. And that's pretty much what we're seeing because they're all in schools," Bell said.

Suicide contagion has been scientifically proven to exist, but similar research has not been done on whether there is a copycat contagion element to the campus killings.Bell says he is working on a study that he hopes will prove his theory.

It's important to note that newsrooms everywhere, including ABC7 Chicago, have had heated debates about what is or is not appropriate to report on these stories. It's a debate that, no doubt, will continue.

Note: This story is part of a fellowship Kevin Roy has with the Carter Center in Atlanta for mental health journalism.

For more information, go to http://www.cartercenter.org/health/mental_health/fellowships/index.html.


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