Battling the Demons
Students, mental health, and the specter of violence on campus

Vol. 10 No. 6
May 2008

Return to Contents


Battling the Demons
Students, mental health, and the specter of violence on campus

Getting help for troubled students


Video: Dealing with students at risk


“Today a student walks out of a math test and picks up the cell phone, and Mom knows immediately how the test went.
Parents haven’t cut the apron strings, and many little issues get blown out of proportion.”

The thing you’re most worried about is not someone going out and shooting people. . . . Suicide, eating disorders that can lead to heart attacks, alcohol and drug abuse that lead to accidents—those are the ways we lose students. ”


Sustainability and Scholarship
Rethinking the separation of academics and engagement at Emory

Re-imagining health care reform
From old paradox to new paradigm


Endnotes

Mention college students and mental health in the same sentence these days, and you’re certain to evoke flashbacks of the televised terror at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University and the less-publicized shootings at Louisiana Technical College. Beyond the debate about the role that mental illness played in the first two tragedies (very little has come out about the background of the killer at Louisiana Tech) are questions of how the shootings have changed life and thought on college campuses, what impact they’ve had on institutional processes to identify students at risk for harming themselves or others, and how to intercede before they do.

“What changed very quickly after Virginia Tech was that ‘weird’ began to be perceived as threatening, and that’s not the truth of the matter,” says Mark McLeod, director of Emory’s student counseling center. “We get students who are very bright, and also some who seem pretty weird, but weird doesn’t mean dangerous; it just means weird. I think the entire community is now responding differently to students like that.”

After Virginia Tech, the number of calls to the counseling center about students increased, but not by much. The bump hinted that as a group, faculty had either become more attuned to warning signs or perhaps more likely to voice existing concerns. According to Carolyn Livingston, special assistant to the senior vice president and dean for campus life, the same jump in call volume happened in her department, and she notes that faculty “radar” is more sensitive to aberrations. “They’re definitely more alert, more concerned about the behavior of others,” she says, though certainly not preoccupied with the prospect of campus violence. In reality, the odds are considerably greater that a student will harm himself or herself than strike out at others.

“Nobody I’ve talked to at Emory is particularly worried about violence in the classroom,” says Matthew Payne, an associate professor of Russian history. “I haven’t run across anybody who thinks, Gosh, that kid in my class could be the next shooter. We’re worried a lot more that students, who are under enormous stress, will bend too far under the load and fall behind.”

It’s a similar story for Regine Jackson, an assistant professor in the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts, whose personality and teaching style, combined with typically small class sizes, has made her naturally sensitive to signs that a student may be struggling with emotional demons, such as prolonged, unexplained absences from class or a precipitous decline in work quality. Jackson also recognizes the importance of acting quickly on a student’s behalf. “It’s important for faculty and graduate students [who teach undergraduates] to know who to call if they see alarming behavior or a student exhibiting signs that things may not be right,” she says. “I tell people to trust their gut. If something doesn’t seem right, I tell them call in someone else.”

Intervene quickly

Emory has planned for reaction to and pre-emption of violence on a number of fronts. The Office of Critical Event Preparedness and Response (CEPAR), established last spring, coordinates the development of emergency protocols for numerous catastrophic scenarios (ranging from a chemical spill to a flu pandemic), including a campus shooting. The newly formed Threat Assessment Team (TAT), chaired by Craig Watson, Emory’s chief of police, is tasked with identifying students who may pose a threat
to themselves or others and to make sure the right authorities intervene quickly. (Plans for CEPAR date back to 2006; the official announcement shortly after Virginia Tech was coincidental. The TAT is a by-product of Virginia Tech.)

“If you look at the rehashing of Virginia Tech, one of the big themes is the need to get the right information to the right people. That’s what the threat assessment team is designed to do,” says Amy Adelman, Emory’s associate general counsel and a member of the TAT. She also clarifies some legalities: “I think some faculty have misperceptions that they have to keep everything about a student confidential. That’s not true. The legal risk—and the human risk—is not taking action and not doing something we should have.” Sufficient action can be as simple as a phone call to the counseling center or a dean’s office; there’s no need for faculty who are not comfortable broaching personal topics with students to step beyond their comfort zones.

The Virginia Tech tragedy and other shootings increased awareness of just how serious and widespread mental illness has become among college students. According to the Emory Mental Health Task Force Report issued in December 2005, about 8 percent of Emory students are treated at the counseling center each year, even though an estimated 20 percent of adolescents experience mental health problems whose severity warrants professional attention. The report states, “The intensity and volume of requests for service at the counseling center is rising rapidly.” During the 2004–2005 school year, there were an average of four mental health crises per week, and student hospitalizations for psychiatric emergencies increased by about 50 percent. A similar rise in intensity and volume was recorded for faculty and staff by Emory’s Faculty-Staff Assistance Program.

It’s a national phenomenon. College counseling centers are almost universally overworked and understaffed. The Emory Task Force noted that “current benchmarking data indicates that Emory lags behind top-rated ‘destination’ universities in the amount of resources devoted to mental health prevention and treatment.” McLeod readily acknowledges the problem, adding that the deficiencies are being addressed through staff and budget increases and other measures.

Volatile students, helicopter parents

Because grave academic troubles may be rooted in emotional turmoil, a student who is having trouble literally making the grade and ends up in the college’s Office for Undergraduate Education can expect to have the counseling center recommended to them, says Thomas D. Lancaster, former senior associate dean of undergraduate education (who was interviewed for this article before his recent resignation). “I’m a professor in political science. The biggest surprise I had in taking that administrative job, bar none, has been the amount of time I spent learning about students and mental health.” He and six assistant and associate deans oversee all things academic at Emory College, including honor code issues, which also means they consider student behavior from a different angle.

“Our job is to get information to students about their academic work, and sometimes the message we have to deliver is not one they want to hear. One conviction for an honor code violation can keep someone out of medical school or law school. You could see how that could be potentially explosive,” says Lancaster. “Sometimes we may want to leave our office door open or not meet with a student unless another dean is present. Those kinds of things are always on our minds.” His staff has debated whether to install surveillance cameras and even a “panic” button hooked directly to the Emory police. The heightened caution about security, he explains, arises from a generally more volatile student populace, at least among the subset whose academic careers face damaging penalties. “It’s the nature of an increasing number of very aggressive students and parents,” Lancaster says. “I spend more time than ever talking to parents about why Johnny is in danger of being kicked out of school, but the parents don’t know we are already dealing with an honor code violation and that he has already threatened a dean.”

Lancaster laments, and marvels at, “helicopter parents”—hovering, a cell phone call away, primed to swoop to the rescue at a hint of inequity, and who seemingly don’t use the word “no” when speaking with their children. In Lancaster’s view, the combination of unrelenting vigilance and leniency robs students of the invaluable lesson of falling down and getting up again. A “B” on a biology test can provoke a full-court press from angry parents who insist it must be some sort of mistake.

That sense of entitlement is bound to affect interpersonal interactions. As Livingston observes, “I think our students could benefit from more communication with one another through traditional means.” McLeod thinks most students relate to their peers and instructors well, but he does have a bone to pick with communication technology. In a telling little experiment, he used to ask peer counselors in training to wander around campus and attempt to make eye contact and exchange a smile with students. A shared smile creates a pleasurable, and chemically measurable, reaction. “It’s a rush,” as McLeod puts it. Try that experiment today, and you’d have to break the iron grip of the cell phone clinging to so many ears. “There’s this wonderful, lovely way that people can use to connect with anybody in the world, but there’s something that’s missing that’s different about our community because of that, and it makes a personal connection much more difficult. You can see it and feel it walking across
campus.”—S.F.