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Thursday, April 26, 2007
Is Chapel Hill safer than Blacksburg?

"In the wake of the shootings at Virginia Tech, do you think the UNC campus is safe?" This Monday the Chapel Hill Herald "Community Speakout" asked as well that of five students. They all said "yes." They must also think the Blacksburg campus was safe the day before the killings happened there. Virginia Tech had a person on their campus who was clearly and obviously mentally ill, and chronically angry, isolated and dangerous as well: Cho Seung-Hui. For the record, Virginia Tech was not safe.

Apparently these UNC students didn't notice alumnus Mohammad Taheri-Azar driving an SUV through the heart of UNC's campus last March. Taheri-Azar was charged with nine counts of attempted first-degree murder. Only his incompetence as a mass murderer kept him from rivaling the total in Blacksburg.

Taheri-Azar said he did this to avenge the deaths of Muslims around the world. He likely had a brain disorder also.  His sister says he has tried to kill himself at least twice since his arrest. At last report he was at Dorothea Dix Hospital undergoing a psychiatric evaluation. His lawyer says his client "has a severe mental illness." He was very angry, isolated and dangerous as well.

We should also remember Wendell Williamson. On January 26, 1995, Williamson, then a third-year law student at UNC, killed two people during a shooting spree on Chapel Hill's Henderson Street. Williamson also shot and wounded two others. A jury found Williamson not guilty by reason of insanity. Clearly Williamson received inadequate treatment for his mental illness, having won a $500,000 medical malpractice suit against his psychiatrist.

Williamson had 600 rounds of ammunition in his knapsack when he was arrested. He later said that he originally planned on going up on the hill above the Smith Center at game time for his killing spree -- but he didn't. If he had, dozens, if not hundreds, could have died.

No one can make any place else really safe from individuals who are willing to die in order to kill. There are not enough gun control laws, armed guards or metal detectors in the world to make it truly physically safe.

I can promise you that the task force established in Virginia to evaluate their tragedy will recommend improvements in the campus and the state mental health systems. They should.

Recently, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) graded the state mental health systems. North Carolina got a D+. Virginia got a D. Our mental health treatment systems do not have minor flaws or gaps; they have gaping crevasses that make the Grand Canyon look like a hairline crack.

We can make things substantially safer, starting by providing significantly better and more assertive treatment for people who have serious mental illnesses, especially those who are a potential danger to themselves or others. We know how to do this.

This does not mean locking up every person who mutters to himself or looks strange. Most people with mental illness are not dangerous to anyone -- not if their illness is properly treated and they are incorporated into a close and caring community.

Kicking those with mental illnesses out of school, or the workplace, will only move the problem. A valid and up-to-date student ID is not what allowed Cho and Williamson to kill, nor what kept Taheri-Azar from trying.

Shunning, isolating and marginalizing those with mental illness will not make anyone in this world any safer. Doing these things will make it more dangerous. Appropriate treatment and communities that care about those with mental illness will make things better and safer. Such treatment does exist -- but there is far too little of it and there are too many barriers to receiving it for those in need. And such communities do exist -- but they are too few and too far between.

Sometimes treatment may involve involuntary commitment in locked ward in a mental hospital. (And this should not be only after tragic acts of violence against themselves or others.) But when it does, it should also include appropriate placement in supportive transitional housing after hospitalization, and appropriate community support after that. (Some of which is just what North Carolina is cutting right now, believe it or not.)

Laws to allow for involuntary out-patient treatment would also keep us all safer. Someone hospitalized as dangerous then made safe by medical treatment should not leave the hospital without support and monitoring to assure that they stay on that treatment lest they return to their previous condition unobserved.

We can do this. We must demand this. If we don't, when the next horror happens, we won't have to look for someone else to blame, we can just look for a mirror.


Gary D. Gaddy serves on the board of NAMI Orange County.

A version of  this column was first published in the Chapel Hill Herald, April 26, 2007.  Copyright  2007  Gary D. Gaddy

Authored by Gary G. Gaddy at 9:34 PM EDT
Updated: Saturday, January 22, 2011 4:21 PM EST
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