In the Wake of September’s Georgia Tech Shooting
Mental health on college campuses
Recently at my university, campus police shot an unarmed student. Students received multiple letters of condolence from administrators taking note of the tragedy and listing the mental health services available on campus. Reminding students of health services only in times of tragedy — when a life has already been lost, possibly in relation to struggles with depression — is too little too late. Universities need to establish programs and facilities to support all students throughout their tenure at the institution, and to train staff, administrators and police officers with the skills to recognize and defuse tense situations to keep everyone safe. To Georgia Tech’s credit, they seem to be learning from the experience and are examining both campus police policies and long-term funding for student mental health services.
A few years ago, a close friend at school exhibited signs of mental instability. Whatever he was working through was affecting his own life and happiness as well as that of his friends’. He verbally abused those closest to him and bounced back and forth between interacting as the friend he’d once been and isolating himself by using angry and upsetting language about himself, others, the city we lived in, and the institution we attend. We worried about him, and we worried about each other.
Two of us decided to approach the Office of Student Life to address our concerns before anyone got hurt. We met with a member of the administration, who assured us that they would “look into it.” We later discovered that they had sat down with the student we were concerned about; he seemed fine, and no further action was taken. The student left the school, moved away from the city, and cut off all contact with his friends. He has since gotten back in touch with apologies and assurances that he is in a better space geographically, institutionally, and mentally.
In my early college years, I dated a young man whom I believed was battling depression. I was not a mental health professional, nor did I process emotions the same way as he did, but I was concerned. When he refused to visit the campus mental health services, I decided to see what options were available to him. I set up an appointment (the wait was only a few weeks), but when I sat down to talk with one of the school’s two counselors, I felt decidedly brushed off. The counselor didn’t seem to understand why I’d come to see him and told me that I seemed just fine. The wait was more than a month to see the other counselor, and so I gave up, and my partner and I continued to struggle with the issue on our own.
By my senior year of college, when friends talked about depression or even thoughts of suicide in the dining hall or walking to the gym, the response I’d gotten three years earlier dissuaded me from contacting mental health services or from encouraging my friends to do so. Students talk openly to friends and peers; we watch out for each other. I needed help to understand how to support a loved one working through depression and knowing when to intervene. When counselors are too overbooked or insufficiently trained to help students tackle mental health issues from all sides — including advising their peers — we lose valuable advice that could improve the quality of life for all students on campus and create more opportunities for students to get help when they need it.
Police officers — especially those working on college campuses, where suicide rates are unacceptably high and many students are at an age when mental health issues begin to emerge — should receive training to recognize and respond appropriately to students in distress. Such training for officers now exists, and the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill works hard to get officers trained as crisis intervention specialists (CITs) and to disseminate information about how to specifically request a CIT officer when 911 is called. Universities have no excuse not to take advantage of such programs where they exist and to make campuses safer for everyone attending: students, staff, faculty, and officers alike. The question of why police did not carry or use less fatal means of subduing the student on my campus remains unanswered.
When campus administrators, police, and health services are collectively unable to provide students with the help they need, we have a serious problem. Fatally shooting a student should never be an alternative for any member of a university community. Police are not trained mental health professionals, and campus mental health services too often prove inadequate in both quality and quantity of care. Waiting months for an appointment with a counselor, unless a student claims suicidal thoughts, will not do. We don’t always say exactly what we think or feel. We don’t always call when we need to. Universities need to rethink the attention and funding devoted to mental health services. Alumni and donors should demand that their names be emblazoned on counselor’s offices as well as on football stadiums. Our lives depend on it.
Alice B. Grossman is a Ph.D. Candidate and Graduate Research Assistant at Georgia Institute of Technology