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January 18, 2013

Virginians Push for Mental Health Awareness to Prevent Tragedies

by Carla Babb

The aftermath of the December mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut has been deeply felt in Virginia, where the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history ripped apart families in April 2007 and left people searching for ways to help the mentally ill.

When Joe Samaha heard the news about gunfire at Virginia Tech five years ago, he began to worry.  His daughter Reema was a student at the Blacksburg, Virginia, university.

"I watched the numbers," Samaha said. "I watched the toll going up and I said, 'Something's going on. Let me call Reema.'"

​​Reema never answered. She and 31 others were killed by Seung-Hui Cho, a student who ended the rampage by taking his own life.

"He would speak in the softest whisper I've heard," recalled Lucinda Roy, an English professor who tutored Cho in 2005.

Unknown to her at the time, Cho had a mental illness called selective mutism.  It kept him from speaking in certain situations. Some of his peers bullied him because of it.

Roy said she tried, unsuccessfully, to get help for Cho.

"Our counselors, even now, have to see 1,750 students per counselor. That's the ratio. It's ludicrous," she said.

Reliving Virginia Tech

One month after a mentally-disturbed shooter killed six adults and 20 children in at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, Samaha understands the pain that parents of the Sandy Hook victims are experiencing.

"It's a retraumatization," he said. "You become numb and stunned and saying, 'Oh no, not again.'"

Virginia state lawmaker Rob Krupicka wants to make sure massacres like these never happen again.

"I think that instead of arming our teachers with guns, we should be arming our teachers with tools to identify mental health issues in their school community and get those students the kind of support they need so that tragedies don't happen," Krupicka said.

He has introduced a bill calling for $2.5 million to fund mental health training for teachers in Virginia schools. When he started identifying programs with proven results, Mental Health First Aid rose to the top of his list.

Mental health first aid

The 12-hour training course presents warning signs and risk factors for common mental health issues. Instructor Leslie Roberts says the class also tries to remove the stigma of mental illness.

"We're taking it out of 'this is a willful, moral, judgmental status, that you just don't work hard enough,' versus the brain has chemistry in it and it's not functioning on a physical biochemical level that helps this person live the life that they really want to live," she said.

At a workshop in Fairfax County this week, students participated in an exercise where some whispered in the ears of others as they tried to carry on a conversation. The lesson showed them how difficult it is for a person who hears voices in his head to talk to someone.

"Everyone can benefit from this because, in the end, it's going to make our community safer," course participant and social worker Tianja Grant said.

For Joe Samaha, state funding for this sort of training is a step in the right direction.

"You're going to pay now or you're going to pay later," Samaha said. "And unfortunately we've been paying with the lives of our children."

He says he'll continue to advocate for mental health awareness, giving the daughter he lost a stage for making a difference.