Better Mental Health Services Needed on Campus
> 6/19/2007 1:03:15 PM

A joint committeecomprised of individuals from the Departments of Justice, Education,and Health and Human Services, who were called together by PresidentBush in response to the Spring's tragedy at Virginia Tech, has issued a set of recommendations for improving the state of mental health treatment and security services on America's college campuses.

Thereport makes grand and presumably well-meaning statements built aroundphrases like "effective coordination," "legitimate information sharing"and "appropriate community integration" and lists some very validpoints of concern, but it offers little in the way of specificrecommendations for policy revision. Neither does the report call forany additional monetary investment in the mental health servicesoffered on American campuses. Policymakers may not care to hear this,but it's hard to see how information and treatment webs can growstronger in the absence of significant budget increases, or drasticchanges in the way that mental health services are delivered on campus.Some mental health advocates claimthat the report is simply a rehash of previously established facts,offering mere generalizations in place of substantive guidance. Issuinga statement to the effect that "we need to encourage those in need toseek treatment" is hardly evidence of the serious research with whichthese individuals credit themselves. The primary issue is not thatpatients lack the emotional support to seek treatment - it's that theyoften do not even have the option.

Much of the group's commentary does, however, at least pointin the right direction: as its authors suggest, many school officialsas well as mental health professionals remain confused about how toproceed along the slippery slopepresented by the need to alert others to the actions of individuals whopose serious risks to themselves and their peers. We need to clarifythe appropriate venues and methods for processing this info. Record-sharing practices between intelligence agencies,mental health services and school officials clearly need improvement,although the only specific measure the report suggests is an organizedconference between "the directors of state mental health, substance abuse, and Medicaid agencies and constituent organizations". Can we trust these individuals in light of a 2006 National Alliance on Mental Illness study which measured each state's mental healthcare system,arriving at a barely-passable nationwide average? Another of thepanel's undeniably correct assertions: responsible parties need to takeall neccessary measures to ensure that deadly firearms do not fall intothe hands of those whose mental instabilities present a threat to thecommunity at large.

In an inevitable political convergence, the report was issued on the same day that the House of Representatives passed a billintended to strengthen the restrictions on gun ownership among thementally ill - the obvious implication being that a dangerously deludedindividual such as gunman Seung-Hui Cho could and should have beenprevented from purchasing a firearm in the first place.

Cho,who killed 32 students and faculty members April 16 before turning agun on himself, had been deemed mentally ill and a danger to himself inDecember 2005, but that information was not available in the computersystems used by the outlets that sold him guns.

The issueis extremely complex, especially when considering how to specify whenan individual is to be deemed too unstable to own a gun. Millions ofAmericans have received some form of mental health treatment, yet mostare perfectly capable of practicing responsible gun ownership. The factthat the bill in question was co-sponsored by the National RifleAssociation leads to divided responses depending on one's opinion ofthe organization, but they obviously understand the need to preventsuch horrors, and they (hopefully) appreciate the fact that the mosteffective method of prevention is most definitely not allowing every student to carry a loaded, concealed weapon.

Themental health services on the majority of our college campuses stand insore need of a complete overhaul. Quality treatment for mental illnessmust be available and discreet. The ways by which to access itimmediately must be common knowledge to every student. While studentsneed supportive adults and mental health professionals with whom todiscuss less sensational concerns like homesickness, weight loss andsubstance abuse, those who pose serious threats to themselves or othersshould be treated accordingly - and this does not imply giving allparties access to their most personal information. Obsessive attentionto security concerns may lead some patients to believe that theirprivacy rights have been violated. But the line may occasionally needto be crossed, and establishing where and when that must happen willbetter serve the community in the end.

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