Are Colleges Failing Their Mentally Ill Students? Ctd

Readers begin to share their stories:

I appreciate your most recent coverage of the ongoing issue of mentally ill students on college campuses. As a current first-year undergraduate at a Northeastern liberal arts college, I have seen countless cases in which students who needed help were met with harsh discipline. A few of these cases have hit close to home. A good friend revealed to our tight-knit group that he has suicidal thoughts. After he seemed hesitant to get help, our group made the decision to alert the Health Services Department on his behalf.

The campus response was, in my opinion, disturbing.

Two campus police officers – not trained medical professionals at the Health Services Department – came to my friend’s door at 3 AM, pulled him out of bed, gave him a full body search, hand-cuffed him and then brought him to the campus police detention facility. In other words, his mental and emotional issues were treated as criminal issues. After he was quickly examined by health services officials, the administration gave him a forced leave of absence for a semester. He was removed from a close, caring group of friends and many other support structures on campus. Keep in mind, this is an 18-year-old kid who’s living away from home for the first time in his life – your typical college freshman.

I think this anecdote reflects just how paranoid universities are about an on-campus death (especially a suicide). Their efforts to avoid the repercussions of a suicide completely miss the point. Their primary goal is not to stop their students from committing suicide; their goal is to make sure that students don’t commit suicide on their campus. It’s not about a commitment to making students healthy; it’s a strategic plan to remove any students who show the slightest signs of mental health needs. Of course, there are so many negative consequences to this approach – the most detrimental being that in criminalizing and punishing students with mental health problems, the university discourages students from seeking help for very serious issues (potentially suicide). This is a grim outlook, but from what I have seen so far this is a recurring pattern.

Again, I really do appreciate your coverage on this topic. I think it deserves much more attention and I think it is a conversation that college officials around the country are failing to have.

One college official would beg to differ:

In the case of my particular campus (a small local campus of a very large research university), I have to say that we most definitely are not failing our students.  We only have about 800 students on our campus, but we made the commitment to hire a full-time personal counselor (MS-level education in counseling with certifications in adolescent and personal counseling and years of experience at another university and in social work) even though that was a huge expense to our smallish budget.  We did it because we could see that more and more students needed the help and because more and more students are arriving on our doorstep diagnosed with some sort of mental illness and/or cognitive/learning disabilities.

Every front-line department, including faculty, has a representative (or several) on our Student Success Committee, including the personal counselor.  We meet several times a semester and we often discuss the students we know who are having problems or who have been reported to us as possibly not adjusting well in addition to trying to deal with all the other factors that go into student success.  We take a team approach to these situations, with everyone involved trying to get the students in question to get help for whatever issue they have.  We never abandon a student until the student abandons us by withdrawing or flunking out.

Perhaps it’s because our campus is so small that we are able to dedicate so many personnel to this issue.  It helps that almost every student on campus knows at least one of us well, if not all of us.  Perhaps it’s that our faculty and staff also know each other well and keep each other up to date on what is happening in their classes/offices.  Maybe it’s our campus’ leadership, who have funded the personal counselor position, created the Student Success Committee and made it a priority for every department and faculty member to keep student success first in our minds and to emphasize that success does not apply only to the most academically successful.

All I know is that we have plenty of students with major emotional problems, but very few of them have withdrawn or acted out.  I can only think of one instance that, despite everything we did to try to help, led a student to cause a major incident on our campus.  And even that was relatively minor in retrospect.  The student in question had flunked out after not taking advantage of the help he had been offered after threatening an ex-girlfriend who, like him, lived in the dorms.  When, the next semester, he started sending threatening messages to her again and this time saying he was coming to campus with a gun, she and other students contacted our campus police and the campus was closed until the young man was arrested that night.  He finally got diagnosed and hospitalized and is going to another school to which he can commute and continuing his therapy as an outpatient.

It’s only been that one in the fifteen years I’ve been here and in the eight years since we committed to the full-time counselor and Student Success Committee.  Some might think we do too much to intervene with our students, but I think that’s a pretty good track record.