Schools to Assume a More Active Role in Mental Health Equation
> 2/22/2008 12:10:10 PM

In the face of yet another horrible tragedy involving firearms and an unstable individual that left 7 Northern Illinois University students dead, many schools have publicly stated plans to plot a more proactive role in on-campus mental health issues. Conferences and school meetings across the country will soon attempt to determine the exact policies needed to deliver on these claims.

While NIU has experienced a tragedy, this individual case, in combination with the 2007 Virginia Tech tragedy, should not serve to focus criticism on the practice of prescribing medication. It should simply remind us of the crucial role that mental health services play on every single college campus. And if anything of substance arises from the inevitable focus group meetings that will attempt to design policy on this issue, some good may yet come from a heinous and absolutely unacceptable loss of innocent life.

Ideas have already sprung up from various institutions: in perhaps the most extreme example, Arizona State University floated the possibility of requiring all students to submit their mental health histories before attending classes. Though the intentions behind this proposal may be in the right place, it would probably create more problems than it would solve. ASU has not specified whether the plan would require such disclosures only from attending students or from all who apply. If such policies are adopted at this school and begin to become the norm (a very unlikely development at this point, but still one worth considering), some parties would inevitably either falsify their records or refrain from seeking treatment before applying due to concerns that any diagnoses or prescription records would hurt their chances of gaining acceptance to their schools of choice. The fact that a large percentage of students already have some sort of treatment history also implies a deluge of mostly useless paperwork; 1 in 4 citizens have experienced some form of mental illness, and the college entry process occurs at precisely the age at which these conditions usually begin in earnest.

The ASU proposal reflects on the uneasy balance that must be established between the act of protecting students and the need to prevent institutional paranoia that will end up punishing kids who pose no threat and further stigmatizing those who struggle with mental illness. Another developing idea is that of a Peer Corps, a formal organization composed solely of students who rely on each other for understanding and support relating to emotional and behavioral issues. Most young adults are far more likely to voice such personal concerns with their peers. The groups could be funded by the schools and run under strict guidelines like any other campus organization; in the case of possible emergencies, peers would have to refer others to health care professionals or call on security officials when needed to defuse any potential conflicts.

These groups would not in any way diminish the need for professional help on campus, and they would not keep students from visiting appointed counselors. On the contrary, they would help guide troubled students toward successful treatment plans and encourage them to schedule appointments with the appropriate individuals. This scenario is preferable to one in which students delay the act of seeking help due to institutional red tape or a fear of punishment, marginalization, and possible expulsion.

Most school officials understandably report that they have been scrutinizing the behavior of their students far more carefully in the months since Virginia Tech, and the NIU horror will only heighten this sense of anxious awareness. But, again, all must be sure that their concerns about the safety of their students do not compromise the educational experience of others. Mental illness on campus is a constantly shifting problem, not a simple task to be "solved." And the number one issue to be addressed is a need for increased funding and staffing. Sensitivity training for all teachers and faculty is also necessary, but we can't imagine that institutions will be better suited to confront the issue without an expanded resource base. Students should not have to wait for days or weeks to see a counselor. Time is, of course, limited, and every student with emotional concerns cannot see a therapist immediately. But reducing wait times and bureaucratic delays should be a top priority, especially if students are deemed to be potential problem cases. All involved parties will almost certainly agree with that sentiment; no one wants to explain that tragedies could have been averted if only the responsible individuals had received the proper attention when they most needed it.

Students should also try to get ahead of the curve: college applicants who've experienced any form of mental health treatment should carefully examine the resources of the schools to which they've applied and factor those components into all decisions regarding their academic futures. A stronger support net could make all the difference.

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