April 16th, 2008
11:37 AM ET

The Profound Tragedy of Daniel Kim

Dr. Charles J. Sophy
Medical Director of the LA County Department of Children & Family Services

The massacre that killed 32 students and professors at Virginia Tech last April may have put this university on the map, but Daniel's Kim suicide 8 months later (see here) is every bit as tragic.  And in my opinion, more significant.  Once again, at the same university, a profound failure of this school's mental health checks and balances system.  But it's not just Virginia Tech's failure alone.  This university's protocol for mental health issues is more similar than different than many other universities around the United States, and the protocol is simply not good enough. 

We MUST make it good enough.  And by the way, making it good enough, will still not save every person that is experiencing mental illness or issues, but it most certainly gives these individuals a fighting chance to survive. It is unbearable to me knowing that in Daniel Kim's case, only the police were called on his behalf for a wellness or welfare check.  As a psychiatrist, the thought of someone in emotional turmoil being checked on by the police only, with all due respect, is tragic. 
So, how do we begin to make it better? For starters, by putting into place a standardized "check and balance system" where we co-locate mental health with child welfare welfare with law enforcement.  What this means is that schools needs to have a team of experts in place to respond to referrals or in the case of Virginia Tech, an emergency e-mail.  And these teams must all be called into play during both routine assessments and in emergencies, regardless if the individual lives on or off campus.  These multi-disciplinary teams should be reaching to each other, looking at the crisis from all angles: mental health, child welfare, safety risk, and law enforcement. These angles are connected and intertwined.  And once the appropriate people are looking at the right pieces, maybe these kids can be saved.

Filed under: Campus Rage
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Melissa

    I agree with Tammy completely. I forgot to add that since my brother was over the age of 18, there was NOTHING my parents could do.

    April 17, 2008 at 2:49 pm |
  2. Cheryl

    A key problem seems to be a broken mental health system not simply on these campuses but across the United States. I read that someone I went to college with died of schitzophrenia the other day as a homeless person.. He was a bright, funny person in college who began exhibiting odd behaviors soon afterwards. My guess is that he never received significant help. Out of compassion and out of the need to stop this terrible violence we need to invest in mental health care - and mandate that some people get and continue to get treatment - or hospitalize them. To allow them to continue on in this terrifying fantasy world is dangerous for us and an impossible disservice to them.

    April 17, 2008 at 10:44 am |
  3. Tammy

    I'm sorry. You can have all the checks in place you want. You can blame everyone from the university staff to the Pilsbury Dough Boy. This guy wasn't an immediate threat to himself. His "friends" sat through two ideations before deciding it was an "emergency". He didn't kill himself for another month after the cops interviewed him. And even if they acted differently, put him on 72 hour suicide watch, sent him to therapy, gave him happy pills, etc., he still probably would have died. Suicidal people are going to kill themselves if they really want to end their pain and no other way out appears to work for them. One of my closest friends checked out of addictions in-patient treatment against staff advice (after having been evaluated by trained mental health professionals), went to a hotel, took his gun (that he'd owned for years), and blew his brains out. No one was to blame but him. He chose to die. It wasn't the hospital's fault. They did all they could. He just wanted to end his pain and hid that from everyone. We all knew he had struggled for years. Our love and worry couldn't save him either. You can sit with them as they are planning to die, you can love and talk and plead and cry and beg, and you can love them more, but in the end if they choose to die, they will as you're grabbing on for them to stop. My cousin took a gun away from her suicidal 19-year old this past fall. He had been undergoing treatment for depression under the care of a doctor for months. Everyone knew the signs. Everyone tried to help. It didn't matter. He found the gun somehow, drove back to his house, and died the next morning by shooting himself. His girlfriend was in the next room. He found a way. They all do if they want. Daniel Kim is no exception. The university acted within its duty of care to this student. Technically, off campus students are not the university's responsibility once they are off campus. Right or wrong, that's the way the adult world works. In loco parentis died years ago. This family needs to grieve their loss, accept their loss, and stop blaming everyone but their son for his actions. Sometimes life just really sucks and hurts like hell. And there are no answers except that you have to figure out how to breathe each day and go forward whether you want to or not.

    April 16, 2008 at 6:51 pm |
  4. Slater

    Why do we rely on the poorly funded school system to regulate the mental health of our children? Why are we not demanding parents take responsibility and accountability for the mental health of their children?

    This country is sickening me by the day with the reactive and irresponsible blame throwing and refusing to learn from mistakes and handle things pro actively. We really are going down the tubes.

    April 16, 2008 at 5:51 pm |
  5. Melissa

    When my brother was suicidal due to his failing health, my parents sent him to doctors who didn't do much. They asked him questions about his state of mind and if he was suicidal. He would deny that he was and then sent home. Although his illness killed him, I have no doubt his depression had a lot to do with hit. He was only 29 with congestive heart failure brought on by obesity and untreated high blood pressure. He could have lived if he wanted to but he was too depressed.

    I feel for Daniel Kim's family. I'm not sure if much can be done when someone's on a destructive path. I wish them peace.

    April 16, 2008 at 3:01 pm |
  6. Fay, CA

    Considering the awful tragedy that took place on the Virginia Tech campus, you would think they would have put in place a much better system to ensure that troubled students there would be monitored and get some sort of assistance–it's terrible that Daniel Kim's family didn't even receive the emergency e-mail warning about Daniel's condition–had they gotten it, they may have been able to intervene and get him the help he needed. Let's hope Virginia Tech and other campuses will make the necessary changes needed to keep this from happening to other students.

    April 16, 2008 at 2:11 pm |
  7. Vicky

    This is a tragic story about Daniel Kim. As a former school psychologist, now practising in a different setting, we dropped everything to immediately assess and evaluate any student who was referred to us for sudicidal ideation or gesture, including accompanying them to the ER for further evaluation or admission as indicated. Students would come to our knowledge through referrals from suicide hotlines, school counselors, and often through weekly team meetings at our schools. In Ottawa, there is a connected system between the police and community-based and hospital mental health services. In addition, there is an on-call mobile program to respond to crises, with a centralized intake number. The attempt is to interlink agencies so that there is a coordinated response system. However, it's important for family and others to make professionals aware of symptoms. I'm always puzzled when I hear about students who have spoken to someone about their thoughts of suicide, and yet those people have thought it was confidential information or did not take it seriously enough to make a referral for evaluation. It sounds as if in Daniel's case, the family did raise the alarm, but the follow-through is unclear.

    April 16, 2008 at 1:31 pm |

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