Thursday, April 19, 2007
SPOTTING THE WARNING SIGNS
Erika Hobbs and Leslie Postal
Sentinel Staff Writers
April 19, 2007
The shootings at Virginia Tech exposed a college trend that worries campus mental-health counselors: rising numbers of troubled students who may not be getting the help they need.
Cho Seung-Hui was reported to police and spent time in a psychiatric hospital, Virginia officials said Thursday, but none of that intervention prevented him from killing 32 people and himself this week.
Mental-health officials at several Florida campuses said they face the same budget constraints and privacy considerations that complicated efforts to help Cho, a sullen student who alarmed English instructors with his violent writings.Despite their best efforts, officials said, someone can slip through the cracks.
"We could tell you today the students that keep us awake at night," said Lesley Sacher, director of Thagard Student Health Center at Florida State University.
College counseling centers across the country report not only an upswing in the number of patients who visit the clinics, but also a surge in the number of freshman students with mental-health problems.
A 2006 National Survey for Counseling Center Directors done by the University of Pittsburgh shows that 92 percent of counseling-center directors nationwide reported concerns about an increased number of students with serious problems.
They also reported jumps in the numbers of students who hurt themselves and those who sought crisis counseling during the past two years.
Clinic directors in Florida say that often the best they can do is screen students carefully and stay alert.
For example, Sacher said mental-health professionals see many students who saw psychiatrists in high school, who take medication to cope and need additional care in college. They are "extra-bright, unbelievably talented, but extraordinarily fragile," she said.
Waits can take weeksBut getting help for them can be difficult.At FSU, students wait three to five weeks to see Sacher's two psychiatrists. Three years ago, the center, which serves FSU's 40,000 students, didn't have any. Last fall, the University of Florida's director of student affairs pleaded with the state for more money for its clinics.
The University of Central Florida has one counselor for every 3,250 students. Industry standards call for one for every 1,000 to 1,500 people. Like officials at the other universities, David L. Wallace, the UCF counseling center's director, said he could double his staff and "it would not be out of line."His counselors deal with emergencies and problems that can be handled quickly, referring students with chronic and more-intense issues to off-campus facilities. They do not have much time for prevention and training programs that might, for example, help students recognize signs of depression in classmates.
"These are the things that so often get put on the back burners," Wallace said. "There is strong recognition there is need for more help, and sometimes the funding is just not available."Campus clinics only see those students who want help, of course.
How to reach the rest, including students such as Cho, is much harder.
In November and December 2005, two women complained to police at Virginia Tech that they had received "annoying" calls and computer messages from Cho, police said.
After the second complaint, the university obtained a temporary detention order and took Cho away for psychiatric evaluation because an acquaintance reported he might be suicidal, authorities said.
About the same time, Cho was referred to the university's counseling service after an English instructor expressed alarm at his writings, police said. It is not clear whether he followed through with treatment.
'It's a difficult thing'Counselors, teachers and administrators in Florida said they walk a fine line not only in picking out who might be a threat, but also in what to do about it.
Thomas Krise, chairman of UCF's English department, said he thinks his Virginia colleagues tried to help Cho.
"It's a difficult thing," Krise said. "English professors are very well-trained, but we're not trained as counselors or psychiatrists. . . . It doesn't sound to me like they missed something.
"The screenplays and assignments that alarmed classmates and instructors were filled with violence, profanity and other vulgarities -- not much different at first glance from video games and gore films on the market today.
Students often write that way, and creativity doesn't indicate mental illness, educators said.
"Stephen King is not chopping up people and putting them in the basement" just because his writing depicts horrific acts, said Stephen Schlow, chairman of UCF's film department.
But since Monday's massacre, the issue of disturbed students has been a frequent topic of conversation.
"That's almost all we've talked about in my office," Schlow said."My guess is that if it were truly disturbed, we would notice it," he added. "That doesn't mean if we said the person is truly disturbed, we would get any more action than they got in Virginia."
Schools can be stymied
Universities have limited options when a student refuses counseling. They can't force an adult to seek care and can't legally contact parents without permission. Most won't expel a student for refusing treatment.
What administrators often do is focus on a behavior. If a student won't stop cutting himself, making suicide threats or stalking others, Florida schools often step in and recommend he take a break to recuperate, said Wayne Griffin, director of UF's Counseling Center.
Peter Lake, a law professor at Stetson University and co-author of The Rights and Responsibilities of the Modern University, said universities need better systems for reporting and intervening in such problems.
A dean may not know faculty has talked to a distressed student or that the student faced trouble with police. Campuses need a strong central system and policies in place to get help quickly, including those that permit professionals to warn the community if a patient poses a danger.Officials at FSU and UF say they have similar systems in place. But after Virginia Tech, they say, every higher-education institution will be reviewing its policies to ensure they catch distressed students before disaster happens.
"This will change higher ed forever," Lake said.
Erika Hobbs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-6226.
Leslie Postal can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5273.
Information from The Associated Press also was used.