Colleges walk delicate line in assessing students’ mental health

Holly K. Hacker

The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS (MCT) – College students struggle with becoming adults, handling relationships and independence. They might get depressed, even write an essay laced with violence or profanity.

So when do routine troubles become severe enough that college officials need to do something? That’s often hard to tell, some college counselors and administrators say, reflecting on the mentally ill Virginia Tech student who fatally shot 32 people, then himself.

“What happened at Virginia Tech is an extreme example that makes for great conversation. But the truth is, if we treated every undergraduate who was depressed as about to exhibit a manic episode, we’d have to confront virtually every student in campuses across the country,” said Dean Bresciani, vice president for student affairs at Texas A&M University.

Colleges say they can and do look for warning signs, but they simply can’t predict whether a student will erupt into violence. They’re also bound by laws that restrict access to mental health records and can make it difficult to get a disturbed person necessary treatment.

Last Monday’s rampage at Virginia Tech raises questions about what campuses should do when students exhibit disturbing or threatening behavior. Some professors and counselors say it’s a painful call to review their practices.

“I can’t say that we could have prevented a Virginia Tech, but you can identify people who are ticking bombs, and you can keep a watch on them and you don’t have to wait for them to commit crimes,” said Murray Leaf, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at Dallas.

This week, UTD’s faculty senate voted to add rules on how professors should handle disruptive students. The decision is unrelated to what happened in Virginia – rather, it was a reaction to a few cases in which students have been hostile, Leaf said.

The new rules, which campus administration must approve, say a professor can request that a threatening student be barred from class or campus until the dean of students can resolve the matter. The rules also define disruptive behavior to include stalking, being abusive and other things.

Leaf said there have been a few cases in recent years of students bullying faculty members, threatening lawsuits or using menacing language.

“My sense is there may be one or two on campus at any time, but not to the level of Virginia Tech.”

College officials across Texas say they don’t keep exact numbers on students with serious behavioral problems, but it’s rare. Most students who seek counseling are dealing with typical challenges: general anxiety or depression brought on by homesickness, the stress of schoolwork, or troubles with a roommate or significant other. Some students have more serious issues, such as severe depression, an eating disorder or bipolar disorder.

Counseling on the rise

“There’s no question that across the nation, we’ve had higher numbers of students coming in for counseling. And we also have higher numbers of more serious mental health issues,” said Jane Bost, associate director of UT’s counseling and mental health center.

She attributes the trend to several factors: newer medications that help students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend school and function well. There’s more academic pressure than 15 or 20 years ago. And there’s less stigma attached to seeking help.

The potential for violence has prompted college officials to craft policies on handling troubled or disruptive students.

For instance, UT’s policy states: “Every supervisor, administrator, and university official is responsible for responding promptly and thoroughly to allegations of campus violence and reporting such behavior.” That applies to violence by students and staff alike.

UTD’s policy says students in danger of harming themselves or others should be encouraged to go to the hospital, and the college should contact the proper medical or legal authorities. There are also instructions on how to pursue hospitalizing a student who refuses to go voluntarily.

The shooter at Virginia Tech, Cho Seung-Hui, was briefly hospitalized in 2005. A court had found that Cho, who was accused of stalking two female classmates, was “an imminent danger to self or others.” But he was let go and referred to outpatient treatment.

In Texas, people can be hospitalized against their will if they pose an immediate, serious threat to themselves or others.

“It is a high burden, and it should be,” said Barry Sorrels, a criminal defense lawyer in Dallas. “It’s not a rubber stamp. It has to be backed up by evidence.”

And as Cho’s case shows, someone can still be hospitalized and released, and then later commit violent acts.

“Nobody can predict the future, and any time you’re talking about state of mind and mental capacity there’s always shades of gray,” Sorrels said.

Those shades of gray can surface in class assignments. Cho, an English major, wrote two plays that dealt with murder and pedophilia. They were so disturbing that a professor and other students took notice.

‘Hard to judge’

But just because students write about violence doesn’t mean they’ll commit it.

“Sometimes it’s really hard to judge. Some kids are writing grotesque materials just to shock you,” said Robert Nelsen, an associate provost who teaches fiction writing at UTD. And he said creative writing professors see violent or obscene writing “more often than you think you would see it.”

Nelsen recalled one male student who wrote about women in an inappropriate sexual manner. In cases like that, he said he advises them to get counseling and tries to monitor them.

In other cases, when students seem depressed in their writing, Dr. Nelsen says he’s walked them over to the counseling center.

Beth Newman, an English professor at Southern Methodist University, said she’s encountered “worrisome” students, but no one who was aggressive and hostile. She said faculty members know whom to call if they think a student is depressed. “I often do that, and a lot of other people do as well,” she said.

Privacy laws restrict how much a mental health provider can tell others about a patient. But Leaf at UTD says he believe colleges could do more to keep professors, deans and counselors connected.

“I think the Virginia Tech disaster embodies the problem, but it’s certainly not the only thing that does,” he said. “You have to act like a small town. You have to know each other.”

Bost said colleges need to be careful in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting.

“We don’t want to swing to being overreactive,” she said. “There are people with mental health issues that we don’t want to further stigmatize.”