“It could have been prevented.”
The words are uttered in the wake of nearly every suicide and student-led school shooting. In the aftermath, officials count bodies and calculate losses while journalists write stories and post videos for the world to digest, inevitably someone says, ‘it didn’t have to end this way.’
They are endings that many attribute to mental illness and see as wake-up calls for early crisis intervention. Even Sallie Mae, the biggest name in student loans, is raising awareness of the issue. In an article on their website, the company states that the issue of mental illness among college students is a new priority for college and university presidents.
If mental illness is a pool that breeds suicides and student killing sprees, there is more water in the pool them in previous years. According to the 2009 National Survey of Counseling Center Directors, 93.4 percent of directors report that the recent trend toward greater numbers of students with severe psychological problems continues to be true on their campuses.
Counseling centers can only speak about students who obtain their services. This creates a crack which some students fall into who need professional help but do not seek it. Creating a net to catch these students is the goal of pro-active programs such as Ventura College’s Crisis Intervention Team. Among their goals is helping staff members recognize students who may need assistance.
According to training material on their website, “hostility, verbal aggression, depression, isolation and withdrawal are key signals that should not be ignored. Disregarding early warning signs facilitates escalation. It is better to offend a student by over-reacting and apologize, than to fail to act in the interest of everyone’s safety.”
The at-a-glance sheet defines three levels of warning signs and how staff members should respond. Level one warning signs are pronounced and sudden change in attendance patterns. Professors are advised to have a one-on-one conversation with the student and are given a five-point outline of how to do it.
Level three warning signs include aggressive and threatening behavior or gestures and visible agitation, physical tension, trembling. These indicate an extreme risk and staff are advised to immediately call campus police. As with level one, they are given additional steps to deescalate the situation.
The Ohio Criminal Justice Coordinating Center of Excellence created a Campus Safety in a Mental Health Context program. According to a Jan. 14, 2011 press release from Northeastern Ohio Universities Colleges of Medicine and Pharmacy, the program was created to be a comprehensive mental health promotion and suicide prevention plan for Ohio’s colleges and universities.
“Evolving research suggests that the early identification and treatment of psychosis can alter the course of the illness and foster a faster, more complete recovery,” says Mark R. Munetz, The Margaret Clark Morgan Foundation Endowed Chair in Psychiatry at Northeastern Ohio Universities Colleges of Medicine and Pharmacy.
Making information and resources available to those who can serve as early identifiers may increase the success of those who support such programs. In addition to Ventura College’s at-a-glance sheet, they also have a 20-page manual and other resources available online.
The University of Florida website has information on identifying and dealing with troubled or disruptive students. They also have a 93-minute training video visitors can watch.
TJC does not have such tips or training information available on their website. Indeed, you cannot find any mention of such a program on their website. However, the need for pro-active intervention has not gone unaddressed. TJC’s Early Intervention Team, EIT, is a committee dedicated to helping identify students who may be at risk and getting them the help they need.
Tracey Williams, an EIT committee member and licensed professional counselor, said TJC has had some type of informal early intervention committee for years. However, the current EIT was formally created approximately a week after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007.
Since its creation, the committee has been a behind-the-scenes committee that has maintained a low-visibility profile. In their bi-weekly meetings, they will typically discuss two to three students, although there have been times they have talked about as many as ten. Cases come from referrals from either members of the committee or faculty members.
“We are a multi-discipline approach,” said Randy Melton, Director of Campus Safety and on EIT committee member.
That approach entails having a committee whose membership represents the expertise and perspective of a diverse field of departments. Current members include representatives of the Student Judicial Programs, Campus Safety, Testing and Career Services and crisis counselors among others.
Melton explained that with the Virginia Tech shooting, one of the key problems was that individuals had bits and pieces of indicators of a potential problem but that no one talked to each other. They see their inter-disciplinary approach as a solution.
“Usually, what we’ve found out through the years, is that if there’s a red flag raised on a student [another committee member] has had contact with that student,” says Melton.
“Paul [Goertemiller, Director of Testing and Career Services] is in charge of testing, so he may see an issue there and he brings the student’s information to us. Well, I’ve had [previous] contact with that student. She’s [counselor and committee member Tracey Williams] had some contact. This is where we’re a team. We come together,” said Melton.
Some of the benefits of the program include interventions which if left unaddressed, may have escalated.
“[Some of the benefits] has been the immediate removal from some persons off the campus because it could have been a possible threat,” said Director of Student Judicial Programs Damien Williams.
Getting individuals the right kind of help that they need, can prove beneficial in the way they act and learn.
“We’ve seen behaviors decrease. They go and get on their medication again and get their mental health services going and then they’re able to be successful in college again,” said Tracey Williams.
Starting in the fall the committee will become more visible, including having information about it posted on the school’s website. The increased visibility will present challenges, including a likely increase in the number of referrals they see.
“A lot of the initial load [will come from] not understanding what we do and referring all problems [to us],” said Tracey Williams.
“Can we handle the increase,” said Director of Testing and Career Services Paul Goertemiller. “We have no choice but to handle the increase. It may be daunting but we have to do it. Safety comes first.”
For those concerned about students’ privacy, they point out that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the counseling code of ethics strictly limit disclosure of a student’s information including any diagnosis or outcomes.
TJC’s Crisis Counseling page encourages students whose emotions are causing a significant disruption or possible preven
tion of their academic pursuits to contact one of their crisis counselors. Support Services is located on the second floor of the Rogers Student Center. Information for contacting counselors by phone or email can be found at http://www.tjc.edu/CrisisCounseling.
For suicide prevention, call 1-800-448-3000.