Vester Lee Flanagan a tragedy for mental health

Vester Lee Flanagan

WDBJ7: A tragedy for mental health

If you haven’t heard about it yet, just a few days ago there was a tragic shooting in the state of Virginia over in the USA. Now, tragic shootings are not a rarity in that part of the world, but this one has been especially impactful thanks to the number of people who witnessed it. The shooting, you see, happened on live television and the victims were employees of the WDBJ7 news station. The perpetrator, one Vester Lee Flanagan II, was a former employee of that very same station that was let go because of conflicts with other staff members.

Hindsight is, as they say, 20/20. Reading the various reports that have emerged about the perpetrator a story of a highly paranoid and unstable man emerges. Repeatedly there are accounts of his unpredictable and disturbing behaviour, both from his time at the station and the subsequent job he held for a short while. Irrationality, faulty thinking and perceived persecution all seem apparent in what we know. Knowing whether there is a kernel of truth to his perception will forever remain a mystery.

In many ways, whether his perceptions were accurate or not is irrelevant. In either case the reactions and behaviours exhibited were clearly maladaptive. More importantly, this was visible to a number of people, who clearly noticed something wrong and said so.  To their credit, the station had made it mandatory that he “seek help”, something which was taken rather badly by Vester himself.  However, it never seems that authorities or the state stepped in. State mental health officials were not involved, at least not according to what’s been published so far.

It’s a real pity, we will never know exactly what ailed Vester since, like his two victims, he did not survive this ordeal. Ironically, turning someone into a pariah instead of engaging with them at the first sign of distress could very well exacerbate feelings of paranoia and isolation. If you ever witness or hear about someone acting in a clearly anti-social way, it’s better to let someone know rather than pretending it’s not happening or that it’s someone else’s problem.

The thing that many people don’t understand about mental health is that it happens between people as much as it happens within them. Good mental health is also a function of community, which is not to say that we have a right to violate someone’s right to self-determination, but that the mental health of our fellow humans affect us as much as ebola or swine flu. If you saw someone with symptoms of either of those diseases you’d immediately let someone know, why not for someone exhibiting the behaviour that Vester did?

By Jennifer Haygate