Colleges review mental-health issues
Following Monday's fatal shootings by a seriously disturbed student at Virginia Tech, local college counselors say laws that protect privacy...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Following Monday's fatal shootings by a seriously disturbed student at Virginia Tech, local college counselors say laws that protect privacy and other student rights are strict but do not prevent them from addressing serious behavioral and mental-health issues.
Indeed, if a student is deemed a threat to himself or others, counselors must take appropriate action — from increasing treatment sessions to calling police or warning a potential victim.
"When it's a crisis situation, we're generally able to do what we need to do," said Susan Hawkins, director of counseling and psychological services at Seattle University.
At the same time, counselors hasten to say they aren't perfect at predicting who might be a danger to himself or others.
"It's a judgment call several times a day," said Kathryn Hamilton, director of the University of Washington's counseling center. "We worry first about the student's safety and the safety of others."
Most students with serious mental-health issues willingly cooperate and give counselors permission to contact others who can be of help, counselors say.
Respect and protect
Issues regarding mentally disturbed students are being discussed across America after Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho fatally shot 32 students and faculty, then himself, on Monday.
Some university counselors have said they feel legally constrained in how they respond when a student is seriously emotionally unstable. The trick, officials say, is to find the proper balance between respecting a student's rights and protecting the university.
"That's the tightrope administrators have to walk," said Dr. Gerald Kay, a psychiatry professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and chair of the American Psychiatric Association committee on college mental health.
Compounding the challenge is the great increase in the numbers of students seeking help at college counseling centers for mental- and emotional-health issues.
"You've got a very large number of people who may have some vulnerabilities. It has stressed availability of resources," Kay said.
In large part that's due to less stigma surrounding mental-health issues and more effective medications that enable students with mental illness to go to college.
A survey last year by the American College Health Association found that 8.5 percent of students had seriously considered suicide, and 15 percent were diagnosed with depression, up from 10 percent in 2000.
The Anxiety Disorders Association of America found that 13 percent of students at major universities and 25 percent at liberal-arts colleges are using campus mental-health services.
The number of students seeking services from the counseling center at the UW has doubled in the past two years, and the number has grown nearly 80 percent at Seattle U. over the past six years.
In light of the Virginia Tech tragedy, schools are reviewing policies about how to prevent and respond to violence on campus. They're disseminating information on how to recognize severely troubled individuals.
And some — such as Western Washington University in Bellingham — are trying to reach out to students who are especially vulnerable.
Nancy Corbin, director of the counseling center at Western, said Western campus police conducted training a few months ago on how to respond to a shooting incident on campus, and that every department must submit a crisis plan. This past summer, Western required crisis training for all administrators.
Western's dean of students, Ted Pratt, also occasionally invites students to his office for a private talk when they've been identified as having mental or emotional problems. In some cases, he's referred them for further help.
Seattle University has a special team headed by the dean of students that meets weekly to discuss "students of concern" — individuals who may be failing, depressed or suicidal.
The team "will evaluate the situation and coordinate some kind of response," Hawkins said. That could mean a referral to counseling "all the way up to something more extreme."
Awareness is especially heightened at the UW, given a murder-suicide earlier this month, when a campus employee was killed in her office by an ex-boyfriend who then shot himself.
The UW's president and the provost on Friday formed an advisory committee on violence prevention to take a look at safety protocols across campus.
Already, a UW counselor works part time assisting resident housing advisers with student mental-health issues. In addition to its regular clinical services, the campus counseling center also operates a consultation line five days a week to handle questions from faculty, staff or students.
When the UW identifies a student who has talked about or attempted suicide, the student must see a campus psychologist. The student is then given the option of undergoing four assessments with a mental-health provider.
If the student declines to participate in those assessments, the UW can start proceedings to remove the student from school, said Eric Godfrey, vice provost for student life at the UW.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
Marsha King: 206-464-2232 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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