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Sensationalizing Murder and Mental Health

As predicted, the media is now making some very generalized and meaningless connections between Cho’s hospitalization 16 months ago in 2005, and his actions on Monday. The Los Angeles Times leads the charge,

Weary with grief and struggling to explain their failure to monitor Seung-hui Cho upon his release from a mental hospital 16 months ago, the leaders of Virginia Tech sought Thursday to begin the healing process for their shattered university.

“Failure to monitor?” Since when is it a university’s responsibility to monitor all of its students who’ve been diagnosed with depression or suicidal ideation for over a year? The implication is, had Cho been closely monitored over the past 16 months, the university could’ve forseen the murders and prevented them.

At no point in the LA Times reporting do they mention the fact that there is virtually no correlation between increased violence risk and mental illness (except in the case of substance abusers). The reporting treats everyone who has ever spent time in a psychiatric hospital as a potential criminal, ready to explode into a murderous rage. It is vile, indecent reporting that sensationalizes both the tragedy and Cho’s possible mental health issues.

Nobody is “monitored” for that period of time. If he was being seen by a therapist or psychiatrist, that professional would’ve kept tabs on him (but by no means would that have guaranteed a different outcome). Citizens, however, have freedom to choose, and that means refusing treatment if they aren’t in danger of harming themselves or others. According to the mental health professionals who saw him in 2005, he was observed not to be a danger to himself and released.

This happens hundreds of times a day throughout the U.S. — people are involuntarily committed for observation in a hospital, usually for being a danger to themselves (e.g., suicidal). The vast majority of them are released, like Cho, after they talk to a psychologist or psychiatrist and the person is obstensibly stabilized.

Once stabilized or determined not to be in immediate danger to themselves (or others), they are usually released and encouraged to seek followup care from a professional within the community (such as a therapist or psychiatrist). But such care is virtually always voluntary; it’s not clear Cho ever received any followup care.

This fingerpointing about who’s responsibility it was to keep tabs on Cho for 16 months after his hospitalization is pointless, unless it means improving the mental health care system in Blacksburg.

Sensationalizing Murder and Mental Health

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Sensationalizing Murder and Mental Health. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 20 Apr 2007)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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