There has been much exposure concerning mental-health issues at universities since the Virginia Tech shootings. Important conversations have been fostered and basic issues of health and safety revisited on campuses across the nation. I believe this is a good thing, as much as it feels almost blasphemous to state that anything good can come from such a tragedy. My fear is that misconceptions rather than enhanced awareness may also result from some of the coverage by the media and governmental reports.
It has been implied that there is a connection between mental- health issues and violence, and that if only universities handle mental health issues and information about potentially troubled students correctly, we can prevent violent incidents. There are a couple of problems with this assumption.
First, there is no correlation between mental-health issues and violence. None. This misconception could lead to over-reactions and poor decisions that are not necessarily helpful. For example, it has been suggested that university administrators expand the criteria for notifying parents (without permission) of students who show signs of psychological distress. This confidential information is guarded by state and federal laws. Current laws dictate that a mental- health counselor must inform someone who can intervene, with or without consent, if there is imminent danger of death to self or others, or current abuse of a minor or elder.
Others can be contacted with student consent, which is always best, even in the above extreme situations. To do so without permission requires careful judgment on a case-by-case basis lest we create a climate where it feels unsafe to talk about personal issues.
It’s well known that those who most need help are often those most reluctant to seek it. Such people fear stigmatization, judgment or the subjective feeling of being weak or defective if they “need” counseling. They especially fear that their vulnerable, personal “stuff” will be disclosed to others. Even better known is that parents are not always helpful and supportive, they may be abusive or otherwise unhealthy and involving them could have the potential for as much harm as good. The possibility of notification poses a threat for many who already feel questionable in talking about personal problems.
The promise of confidentiality provides the foundation for an initial trust that allows people to reveal issues they wouldn’t risk talking about in other venues. It is the first step in creating the potential for a person to get better. The bottom line is the more we can make it OK to talk about mental- health issues on campus, the safer and healthier our campus can be.
We should consider our focus. Suicide is 100 times more prevalent than homicide. National data indicates that, in a given year, 10 percent of university students report they have “thought seriously about suicide” at least once, 45 percent report having been so depressed it was difficult to function and 1 percent state they have made at least one serious suicide attempt. Other issues that university students commonly face, such as sexual assaults, the effects of a dysfunctional family, eating disorders and substance abuse, are very difficult to disclose without the perception of substantial safety.
Mental-health issues and treatment are related to resilience in academic performance, prevention of suicide and self-harm and increased life satisfaction.
We can work toward creating a healthy, accepting environment where students are less afraid to talk about what they are dealing with, where they have less fear of talking to the people that can help.
Editor’s Note: Stanger is the head and an associate professor of Counseling and Consultation Services.