Gunman Prompts Question of Forced Treatment More than a year before the Virginia Tech shootings, Seung-Hui Cho appeared on the radar of state mental-health officials. He was ordered to get psychiatric help but it's unclear whether he did. State mental health officials say that they are determined to adapt Virginia's mental health system.
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Gunman Prompts Question of Forced Treatment

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Gunman Prompts Question of Forced Treatment

Gunman Prompts Question of Forced Treatment

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A panel that is investigating the Virginia Tech shootings is now focused on Seung-Hui Cho's contacts with the mental health system. It's well known that more than a year before the shootings, Virginia courts had found that Cho was an imminent danger to himself. A court ordered Cho to get mental health treatment.

But it's not clear whether he did and no one has made clear who was responsible for making sure that he did. That's just one flaw in Virginia's mental health regime, and one that's likely to come under the microscope.

NPR's Libby Lewis reports.

LIBBY LEWIS: Fifteen months before the shootings, Cho stood before a special justice of Virginia's court who ordered him to get mental health counseling. The place he was directed to go was to Virginia Tech's Cook Campus Counseling Center.

The campus-counseling center was notified that Cho was evaluated for involuntary treatment. But it's not clear whether Cho ever got that treatment. Counselors and other officials at Virginia Tech declined NPR's request for an interview. They said the family education rights and privacy act barred them from speaking about Cho's case.

That law and medical privacy laws make it difficult to piece together what happened after Cho was ordered to get treatment on campus. A little over a year passed between then and when Cho bought the two guns he would use to kill 32 people on campus.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge is a member of the panel appointed by Virginia's governor. He said the panel should look at ways to break the barriers posed by privacy laws in crisis like this one.

Mr. TOM RIDGE (Former Homeland Security Secretary): Which is pretty clear there's a wall, a barrier, some impediment between the mental health community, the core system, the law enforcement community and the broader university community.

LEWIS: On paper, at least, Virginia's law on involuntary outpatient treatment seems suited for someone like Seung-Hui Cho. It was designed to help people with severe mental illness who are unlikely to follow treatment without a court order. But no one was explicitly designated to monitor Cho's treatment. That's important because if Cho failed to do it, the agency that monitored him could bring him back to court.

But the law is unclear about who has that responsibility. Mark Bodner is a special justice who hears similar cases in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Mr. MARK BODNER (Special Justice, Fairfax County, Virginia): If it's not spelled out who's going to provide the treatment and who's going to monitor the treatment, then it appears that you lose your handle on making sure that the person complies with their court ordered treatment.

LEWIS: The state of Virginia has fixed that glitch since the shootings. It now has a new statewide form that requires the special justice to specify on the order who will monitor the patient's treatment for the court.

There are plenty of other things to fix in Virginia's mental health system. Even before the shootings, the state's chief justice named a statewide commission to recommend changes to every part of the system, including involuntary commitment.

Ray Ratke is the chief deputy commissioner of Virginia's mental health system.

Mr. RAY RATKE (Chief Deputy Commissioner, Virginia's Mental Health System): It's clear to us that our system needs to be transformed and different and less fragmented. So that people don't fall through cracks. And it's clear that we have to get to the bottom of what exactly happened here and how do we make that, how do we plug those holes.

LEWIS: As for the campus, it's clear that Cho was on the radar screen of Virginia Tech's student counseling center well before the shootings.

Cho's English teacher, Lucinda Roy, said she sought the advice of campus counselors in the fall of 2005, when she was urging Cho to get counseling. Back then, it was clear to her that Cho was incredibly isolated and depressed. She lobbied Cho about counseling every time she saw him.

Ms. LUCINDA ROY (English Teacher, Virginia Tech): I would just say it that I knew that he was having a hard time. And that there was nothing to be embarrassed about going to counseling and that we had great counselors he could work with, and I'd be happy to walk him over there.

LEWIS: Roy said that campus counselors were engaged and helpful. As for details she said, you'll have to talk to them.

Libby Lewis, NPR News.

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