10 No. 6
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. ”
Re-imagining health care reform
From old paradox to new paradigm
Academic Exchange: How did the Virginia Tech shootings affect perceptions about students?
Mark McLeod: Virginia Tech changed a lot in terms of how everyone, and particularly universities, looks at students. At every level, Emory gets students who are very bright and who can also be seen as pretty weird. Some of them are just different. I kind of like that about working at Emory and about universities. What changed very quickly after Virginia Tech is that weird began to be perceived as threatening, and that’s not really the truth of the matter. The thing you’re most worried about is not someone going out and shooting people. It doesn’t happen very often. Suicide, eating disorders that can lead to heart attacks, alcohol and drug abuse that lead to accidents—those are the ways we lose students.
AE: Describe Emory’s approach to helping students with mental health issues.
MM: It’s a wonderful thing about Emory that everyone talks to everyone else when it comes to helping students who may be in trouble, in danger, or a danger to someone else. I can’t talk to anyone about a student I’m seeing in therapy. That’s not going to happen. But if there’s a kid in a residence hall who has a gun, that information isn’t confidential. I’ll be involved; police, residence life, campus life—all will be involved. The support system is very strong here, and that kind of connection has been going on for many years. It’s more likely that new faculty will get this type of information during their orientation and disseminated in a more systematic way.
AE: What warning signs can faculty and staff look for in students?
MM: If I went to any departmental faculty meeting and asked for a list of what would raise red flags about a student, the list they’d come back with would be wonderful: a student used to be doing well in school and now they’re not; a drastic change in school work; writing in morose, strange, violent language; they appear needy and show up at my office all the time; they look sad; they look like they haven’t slept in a week; they’re not coming to class.
AE: What should a faculty member do if they’re worried about a student and suspect mental health issues?
MM: The only mistake they can make is not to call the support system we have here. Worried about a student? Call the counseling center. If you’re worried about a student and are wondering, Should I call, shouldn’t I call? Just call. Worried about a colleague or yourself? Call the Faculty-Staff Assistance Program. We’ll be available to refer the student, help you with what to say, and how to approach him or her. Our lives are full of gray. It’s never black and white, and we always err on the more conservative side—on the side of wanting to protect people. We’re OK with going into court with live bodies angry at us. We don’t want anybody to die.
AE: Are students having more trouble relating to one another?
MM: I would agree, based on my own interactions with students and observations on campus. I don’t know if there’s good research to support that. I want to emphasize, though, that a large majority of our students are wonderful people who know how to relate with their peers, and they learn about those very skills during their four years here. If you compare freshmen to seniors, there’s a remarkable growth, and I think that’s the same as it’s always been in college.
AE: How is Emory addressing the added strains on the counseling center?
MM: We’ve hired two new licensed therapists in the past five years and increased psychiatric coverage by about a half-time position. We’ve also added two postdoc psychologist positions during that time that we share with the Faculty-Staff Assistance Program, though they primarily work with students. We plan to hire another psychologist for next year, and over the next three to five years we expect to make additional hires using the new mental health and wellness fee just approved by the Board of Trustees ($50 per semester per student). We now have the equivalent of 10.5 licensed professionals, with an additional 5.5 postdocs and
predocs in training.
Requests for services are increasing annually, and we think they will and should increase more rapidly with efforts to reduce the stigma of seeking help for mental health. While our past budget has not been adequate or up to par with other schools, we expect to bring our budget figures closer to those of peer institutions. With or without extra resources, the increasing mental health–related challenges of our students does put a strain on our and other
college counseling centers, and on the entire Emory community.