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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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Violence and Trauma: Virginia Tech, April 16, 2007

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 16th 2007

Norris Hall on the Virginia Polytechnic Institute campus - scene of multiple April 16th, 2007 murdersOnce again we are confronted by the awful news of violence, this time at Virginia Tech. A young, male gunman came onto campus and proceeded to shoot and kill twenty two or more people including himself. Once again, we all wonder why this type of thing happens. As I think about this latest tragedy, I cannot help but ask how all of these repeated stories of violence and terrorism, here in the United States, in Iraq and around the world, impact on all of us?

We live in the electronic age of instant communication. There are no longer any truly remote parts of the world. The result is that we instantly hear news about happenings in China, Mongolia, Africa and everywhere. In addition, our electronic world contains video games that are so real that the players feel as though they are on the real battle field or on a real police department chasing the enemy or criminals or the foe of any type. The figures in these games appear quite real as they shoot and are shot to death. This scenario is repeated on the Internet, in the movies and on television sets. Communication is instant through our Cell Phones, Blackberries, Portable and Wireless Computers and Internet, and etcetera.

How does all of this affect us and our children?

Edward Hallowell, MD and specialist in ADHD states that he believes these sound bites and and electronic stimulation have lead to an increase in ADHD (Delivered from Distraction, 2005, Chapter 18). He points out that these electronic devices provided to our children makes it increasingly difficult for them to tolerate frustration. We live in an age of instant gratification that inhibits the ability of children to use imagination and creativity. If I can take the liberty of translating: "If a picture is worth a thousand words," are we not better off with the thousand words?

The result of all of this, it seems to me, is that we are:

1) Less prepared to cope with life and the frustrations that life often brings because of instant gratification and

2) Repeatedly traumatized by the steadily incoming information about violence.

In other words, are we not being "driven crazy" by all of this: the electronic age, the age of instant gratification, the graphic images of battles, shootings, and other crimes that are presented to our psyches on a daily basis? I believe the answers to this question are YES. That is part of the reason I urge my anxious and depressed patients to avoid newspapers and television news, in addition to avoiding shows with crime and violence.

It is difficult to imagine the type of despair that drove the shooter at Virginia Tech to commit such a shocking and murderous act. What the rest of us need to learn is how to protect ourselves from this steady diet of horror. If we do not protect ourselves the consequences could be either: 1) we will be afraid to leave our homes out of paralyzing phobia or 2) we will become numb to the loss of human life. We need to protect ourselves and, even more; we need to protect our children in order that they do learn to tolerate frustrations while stimulating the use of their imaginations.

What are your opinions?


Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Armed and dangerous - JR - Jan 14th 2008

One change that might help as regards practical consequence - if not the mental disturbance itself - is for the need for effective gun control to be effectively grasped. No matter how disturbed a young person may be, it will be difficult for them to perpetrate an outrage along Columbine/Virginia Tech lines if they cannot get easy access to lethal weapons. A change of this sort might discommode the legitimate interests of, say, Daniel Boone or Jim Bowie. That having been said, not many people in the US have a real and legitimate interest in being heavily armed such as might have existed in the days of Daniel, or Jim, or the Minute Men. The issue of the trauma that might provoke such violence is certainly important in itself - but to ignore the consequences of the easy availability of firearms appears to be a serious case of overshooting the target. And before anybody insists that they still need their private arsenal to defend themselves - they might well reflect that if nobody in the neighbourhood could arm themselves to the teeth with impunity, then nobody would need to do the same in self-defence.

Regards as always,


Mental Illness is Not Limited to Adults - Someguy - Oct 21st 2007

Bipolar disorder is another area in which kids have shown more susceptibility in recent years, a phenomenon experts attribute to improved understanding that mental illness affects children as well as adults.

A study published in the September 2007 issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry reported a 40-fold increase in a diagnosis of bipolar disorder over the last decade. The study isn’t comprehensive enough to determine the reasons why, but a snapshot view of the trend, says co-author Dr. Gonzalo Laje, an associate clinical investigator at the National Institute of Mental Health. “What this study could be suggesting is that there may be an increased recognition of the disorder and therefore it is being diagnosed more,” says Laje. “It could also mean it is an overdiagnosis, but we can’t in any way categorically say it is or it isn’t. Probably it is a combination of both.”

The study of serious mental illness in children and adolescence is more recent. “Twenty-five years ago people would even debate whether the diagnosis [for bipolar disorder in children] existed,” Laje says. “Symptoms of serious mental illness in children and adolescents are now recognized. Today nobody argues that this diagnosis exists.”

To identify bipolar disorder in children a physician still relies on an adult model of symptoms, however, so they are still defining how the symptoms manifest in the pediatric population. “We are catching up on our criteria,” says Laje.

There is also a noteworthy overlap in the pediatric population between bipolar and ADHD. According to Laje, 30 percent of children with bipolar also have ADHD, and it is an area for further study.

It seems to me behavior that we accepted as perfectly normal 20 to 40 years ago in children is now being recognized for what it is.

I don't think there's been an increase. I just think society is catching on to children's mental state........and trying to figure out why kids kill kids.


- Someguy - May 30th 2007

 He came from Korea and arrived in the United States in 1992. Makes you wonder how much of that thinking comes from his environment?

The killer (Cho Seung-Hui) felt he was demeaned and how do you think he became to feel like that?

Face it. Cho Seung-Hui barely spoke English when he came to the United States, and was probably placed in a school were he felt different and ostracized. Knowing how kids love to torment those that they feel are inadequate and weak, he probably got his brain scrambled.

I think society in general should be scrutinized. Charles Whitman was shooting up people long before any of shootings became 'common place'.

Personally, I think Cho Seung-Hui suffered from some sort of disorder, like antisocial disorder, where being abused as a child, and being around people that think in extreme black and white terms with inability to regulate their emotions, broke his noodle.

However, morality should come first before any personal vendetta. What he did was heinous, and inexcusable.

As long as society does 'not' look at 'itself', these Columbine type shootings are gonna continue. A lot of killers aren't born, they're made.

Children in the Now - Stacey - Apr 26th 2007

I believe that what our children learn is strictly from the parents. I do have 3 children and do not allow those games in my home but they will play them where there are parents who are not concerned. We try to teach our children mannerism, and unfortunately we have to show them how to fight and take up for themselves instead. This is our future its a scary thought to think parents teach their children how to lie, steal and fight and they bring that to our schools. You worry sending your children to school or college. What happened to watching the borders? Why are we taking care of everyone outside of america and not our people?

Densensitized to violence - Emily - Apr 18th 2007

As a clinican I am concerned by how inured children have become to violent images. For some children, daily exposure to violent and graphic images of killing in video games, television, movies, and in the news, appears to have desensitized them to the reality of violence. It should be shocking and terrible, not commonplace and everyday. It appears that the frequent exposure has densensitized many people to the reality of war, violence, and killing. It is shocking to consider making these activities a "game," recreational or enjoyable activities for youth. I appreciate your advice to limit exposure to news, as it is of late, invariably about death, war and violence.  

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