Helping Troubled Students
by Jennifer Donovan and Kara Sokol
He sits alone in class every day, lost in his own world, not really connecting to people around him. A recent writing assignment contains graphically detailed scenarios of violence, but he says it’s nothing more than harmless fiction…
She’s the leader of a high-profile student organization, devoting long days to her studies and working on extracurricular activities. Previously friendly and outgoing, lately she seems scattered and an emotional roller coaster. Her friends complain that she’s drifting away from them…
With incidences of school violence on the rise, the challenges of dealing with anxious, depressed, or stressed-out students are receiving priority attention on campuses. Tragedies like the Virginia Tech massacre have prompted universities to look inward, assessing their own students as they scrutinize their crisis and emergency intervention plans.
The question arises on the nations’ campuses—do today’s students wrestle with more psychological problems than previous generations did, and, if so, what can be done to prevent them from escalating into tragedies?
Recent data indicates that student mental health issues are indeed on the rise. In a 2007 survey of counseling center directors sponsored by the American College Counseling Association, 91.5 percent reported a “recent trend toward greater numbers of students [nearly 50 percent] with psychological problems.”
A growing number of colleges and universities are responding by expanding counseling services, including extended hours and additional counselors. Even so, the average ratio of counselors to students is 1:1,969. At Michigan Tech, the ratio is only slightly better, at 1:1,500. With tight budgets and overtaxed staff, counseling departments are finding themselves ill equipped to handle the demand.
Although Reader’s Digest recently recognized Michigan Tech as the third-safest campus in the nation, the magazine’s evaluation focused on external security threats such as crime or fire. The internal threats—the ticking time bombs of disturbed students—are much harder to assess or prevent.
Michigan Tech’s solution is an innovative—and practical—one. Last year, the Division of Student Affairs assembled the Early Intervention Team (EIT), a cross-campus committee to assess troubled students on a case-by-case basis.
Dean of Students Gloria Melton calls the creation of EIT a vital step. “Often these students are on the radar screen of more than one person or department for either behavioral or health-related issues,” says Melton. “But if we don’t talk with each other about our concerns, we may not recognize it when a student’s life is spinning out of control.”
EIT is quietly yet boldly addressing this communication issue. During weekly meetings, the group identifies students of concern and works to determine appropriate assistance for them. Faculty and staff are encouraged to share their concerns with the group, and they are doing so in increasing numbers.
Don Williams, director of counseling and wellness services and a member of the EIT, believes that the variety of team members is the key to helping students who might otherwise not have sought and received help.
“We’re assessing students and providing personalized assistance, which is often broader than just counseling,” Williams says. “For example, we’ve discussed child care services for single-parent students and health care for international student families. It’s not just psychologically troubled students.”
Campuses across the nation are recognizing the need for cross-departmental solutions like Tech’s EIT. Last year’s survey of counseling directors included a question never asked before: “What impact has the Virginia Tech tragedy had on your center?” A startling 66 percent reported a significant increase in calls coming from faculty members and others on campus seeking consultation about students of concern.
“There has to be a resource, an outlet for concerned faculty and staff members,” says Williams. “A professor needs to know exactly whom to call if he smells alcohol on a student’s breath or is alarmed by a piece of writing.”
Helping or Intruding?
Yet these very precautionary measures raise another question: “At what point does intervention become intrusion?” This issue made headlines recently when a Virginia student in a creative writing class penned a fictional account of a student’s violent breakdown. His dorm room and car were subsequently searched, and, after discovering three guns, he was expelled. Later, however, psychiatrists determined that the student posed no threat to himself or others, and he maintains that his story was a simple fictionalized probe into the topic of student violence.
As administrators tackle the legally and ethically murky process of finding new ways to prevent violence, such concerns are bound to arise. Tech’s EIT carefully considers each student’s case behind closed doors before deciding on a course of action, and if they decide that intervention is required, they share details sparingly and only with essential people.
The privacy issue looms ever larger as more and more students require counseling services. Williams says it’s essential for them to be able to find assistance when they seek it—and not be afraid to do so.
“Our society has become more knowledgeable about health issues and prescription medications, which has led to more people seeking treatment for their conditions—and that’s great,” says Williams. “But when you have increased numbers of students taking medications, you also have increased numbers of students forgetting to refill prescriptions and abruptly stopping medications. We would never want a student who feels unstable or suicidal to not seek us out.”
There is a fine line between safety and privacy, Williams admits, but it isn’t preventing Michigan Tech from trying to identify problems before they get out of hand and providing safe and discreet solutions.
“Tragedies can happen anywhere, but we’re being proactive and doing our absolute best to create a safe campus environment,” Williams says. “When you have a tight-knit community like ours, where faculty and staff members are involved and make it a point to know their students, early intervention isn’t such a difficult task.”
Williams believes that Michigan Tech is doing the right thing by involving the entire campus community.
“Our counselors are skilled in dealing with these sorts of issues, of course, but we can only do so much,” he explains. “But when you combine eyes from a variety of departments, you have a much broader view. ‘It takes a village,’ as they say—and we’re all in this together.”