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Va. Tech Shooter Cho Had Social Anxiety Disorder

The Washington Post reported today that Virginia Tech shooter Cho had an anxiety disorder — selective mutism. Selective mutism is a rare and extreme form of social anxiety. Basically, the person can’t speak in specific situations where speaking is necessary.

It should be noted, however, that this may not have been the cause (or directly related to the cause) of Cho’s violent behavior. There is no research link between social anxiety and violence.

But even more disturbing in reading this article is that a young adult’s health records, even those with a direct impact on a student’s academic performance, can’t be shared between educational institutions. I’m all for health record privacy (as regular readers know all too well), but I do believe it’s important that academic institutions share information that relates to a student’s academic performance. Whether that means sharing health or mental health records, I think that should be allowed.

Schools have a basic right to know what they are getting with an individual. Someone who gets straight A’s on their academic record in a high school’s special individualized and personalized curriculum isn’t exactly equivalent to someone who took honors classes in the same school without a personalized, individualized curriculum.

Professors and school administrators at Virginia Tech could not have known of Cho’s emotional disability — Fairfax officials were forbidden from telling them. Federal privacy and disability laws prohibit high schools from sharing with colleges private information such as a student’s special education coding or disability, according to high school and college guidance and admissions officials. Those laws also prohibit colleges from asking for such information.

I understand why the law is there — to prohibit discrimination against people with different disabilities. There should be able a way to still to meet that need, while providing potentially valuable information to future schools.

And of course, none of this explains Cho’s eventual decline in rational thought that led him to kill 32 students and faculty in cold blood. I’m honestly not certain there could ever be an explanation that satisfies people’s “need to explain” this sort of behavior.

This story is another indicator how lack of communication (and in this case, even the ability to legally communicate) can lead to people not having as much information as they could have in helping this person with their special needs. Imagine if Virginia Tech knew about Cho’s special needs and been able to provide for them in the college environment… It may have helped Cho’s overall sense of well-being and emotional health.

Pure speculation, of course.

Va. Tech Shooter Cho Had Social Anxiety Disorder

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). Va. Tech Shooter Cho Had Social Anxiety Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 27 Aug 2007)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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