A searing backlash followed NBC’s airing of videos made by Seung-Hui Cho, who last month killed 32 Virginia Tech students and then himself. Psychiatrists severely criticized the network’s broadcast of the images; many journalists supported it.
Which made me wonder what Dr. Elizabeth E. Wheeler thought: she’s worked in both occupations.
Wheeler, 49, is head of child and adolescent psychiatry at Emma Pendleton Bradley Hospital in East Providence. I met her last year when Bradley hired me to write its history (Bradley is the country’s first children’s psychiatric hospital).
Wheeler’s late stepfather, Henry Suydam, was southern regional editor for Life magazine. After graduating from Brown University, Wheeler was a reporter at the former Washington Star, working in a small Maryland bureau alongside Maureen Dowd, now a superstar New York Times columnist.
After several friends committed suicide, Wheeler switched to psychiatry, enrolling in a challenging Brown medical school program that qualified her for three specialties: child and adult psychiatry, and pediatrics.
What does Wheeler think of the Cho material?
“I don’t think it should have been shown at all,” she says, adding caustically: “If they [NBC] had a tape of the people being shot, would they have shown that? Would that have been helpful? This was just short of that.”
Wheeler is troubled on two fronts.
One is how images of Cho — face contorted, aiming a gun at his camera, wielding a hammer, and ranting his “manifesto” — do little to explain complex mental illnesses, she says. Worse, Cho’s images might lead other mentally ill young people to copy him.
Most psychiatrists speculate that the 23-year-old Cho suffered from severe psychosis, possibly a form of schizophrenia, Wheeler says.
Such a disease can begin early, becoming extreme in young adulthood. It may involve extreme delusions that others are out to hurt them. And sufferers may make irrational connections, fantasizing their food is poisoned or that the CIA is after them. Still, Wheeler notes, “People with schizophrenia rarely pose a danger to others and are more likely to harm themselves.”
Watching the Cho videos without understanding the nuances and complexity of disease misleads viewers, she says. For example, she heard Cho’s problems discussed as “depression” — which is far different from psychosis. “It was superficial coverage,” Wheeler says. “You didn’t really understand what the process is in the brain that causes someone to lose touch with reality . . . and feel such fear and hostility that, in return, they commit such a horrendous act.”
A better solution, she says, would have involved having mental health experts describe and interpret the images.
Especially worrisome, Wheeler says, is the potential impact of the videos on “vulnerable” young persons. Images seen by an eight-year-old may remain intact 10 years later, when the disease becomes acute. “What happened here with the news media was that they exposed the whole public to this — and to all kinds of kids and people who were not ready for it,” Wheeler says. “It really was sort of an assault.”
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