Shortly after Lyn and I arrived at my first teaching job at Vassar College in 1963 (then all women), we were invited to serve as Mellon house fellows in Strong House, a dorm conveniently near the library where Lyn was doing her researches for her 17th Century English studies at Columbia. Our functions were to be available to students for emergencies — our apartment was on the first floor between the dinning hall where we ate with students and the main entrance. In the case of a death in a family, we were to be the ones to inform the student, as we would have established close links to the 100 or so students living in the dorm. That happily never happened, but we did begin to learn of the traumas to which young college women might be subjected — walking ten miles home one dark night to escape a date rape assault by a car load of Yalies, the pressures on and loneliness of the few minority students then at Vassar (3 of the 1,700 student body), pressures carried over from family life, tendencies to black out suddenly with seizures, occasional cynical faculty seduction efforts.

Needless to say we also felt a strong responsibility to encourage our students to go on to do things from which they had been traditionally banned — law, medicine, engineering — and a good number did so during our 3 years there which happened to coincide with the onset of the women’s revolution.

Occasionally one would spot a student with serious medical problems — physical or psychological. And we were the first in line to respond to such things and to assist our students in getting proper medical care. We were less aware of such things as mood disorders and borderline schizophrenia per se, but when we spotted any symptoms of extreme stress we would urge a student to make an appointment with Dr. Nixon, college psychiatrist. His office was located in a separate little building furnished as a comfortable study rather than a doctor’s office and his friendly dog lay on a rug sharing in his various discussions with students. They generally returned from visits visibly relieved. He was their good father away from home available when they needed him.

As I moved on into public institutions of higher education I learned that it was important for me to get in touch with our college counseling offices and to be sure that I had found the right person whom I could count on to aid a disturbed student. Horrible things have happened to students — rapes by relatives (particularly step fathers), seduction efforts by teachers, let alone date rapes or beatings by guys that they trusted. Men students might be going through the stresses of being gay and coming out as such. In the more stressed out cases arrangements were made for students who seemed unable to cope or to be possibly dangerous to themselves (or much more rarely to others) to be moved into a mental health unit of a hospital where the modern medications with follow up would generally bring them back to normal life activities. I would when I could occasionally visit such lock down floors to bring school work assignments or simply to do a visiting hour with a student whom I had recommended get such help. One learns the specifics of such worlds quickly. People quite often arrive extremely angry and ready to strike out or extremely depressed and a danger to themselves. Generally in a week to so people are stabilized by their medications and counseling — and with follow up out-patient care and medications can function well.

Sadly it is precisely such follow up care that our messed up medical insurance system does not allow to those most in need. One can figure that the typical drunk or druggie out there is trying to self medicate against the pain — very real pain felt in depression and hopelessness. People in such states can either turn against themselves — or in rare cases such as the Virginia and NASA killings — direct their rage against others. We do not recognize how widespread this latter phenomenon may be, as those targeted are most likely family members — a wife against which a rejected husband builds such anger that he strikes out — often after nights of no sleep or under the influence of something that blocks inhibitions.

Needless to say, until someone has lashed out violently, there is not much that we can do about such ones who may or may not strike others. Most who rage do not act out and are not dangerous once they have calmed down. There may be some physiological explanations as to why some brains act out their rages and others do not. I understand that there is an enzyme that controls rages that is missing in some people. Psychiatry is more or less an intuitive guessing game in many instances about likely human action. Possibly as we learn more of brain chemistry, we will be able to predict more accurately who the really dangerous ones are.

Let us hope — and also have a bit more compassion for those so tormented that they would harm others. We see this in two-year-olds, but not in the adults into which they have grown. Reinhold Niebuhr once observed to one of his classes at Union Theological Seminary how dangerous our world would be if typical two-year-olds had the bodies of adults. Watch a two’s temper tantrum as he/she tries unsuccessfully to communicate something important to us adults. Perhaps this is something along the lines of what occurred in the recent grim cases haunting us now?

“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent 718-951-5324 (voice mail only) [blind copies]
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