Nation’s top universities see mixed results in mental health services

Virginia Tech leads way in expanding service

With a recent spike in highly-publicized collegiate tragedies attributed to mental illness, increased attention is being paid to deficiencies in psychological and counseling services universities offer. State incidents, including the campus massacre of 32 Virginia Tech students in 2007 and the number of suicides which occur every year, have increased pressure on Virginia schools to both meet and monitor the mental health of young adults.

Dr. James Turner, former University executive director of Student Health, found suicide outpaced alcohol related incidents as a leading cause of death in his 2011 study, “Leading Causes of Mortality Among American College Students at Four-Year Institutions.” According to the study, the rate of student suicide has remained constant since the 1980s, suggesting a lack of successful preventative action around the issue.

Several of the University’s peer institutions struggle with incidents of mental illness. In 2010, Yale junior Cameron Dabaghi committed suicide by jumping off the observation deck of the Empire State building. The same year, six students committed suicide at Cornell University, two of them jumping off bridges on campus.

In January this year, University of Pennsylvania freshman Madison Holleran jumped to her death from the roof of a parking garage in Philadelphia. Since Holleran’s death, two more students at the university have also committed suicide, and a graduate student committed suicide while away from campus in December, bringing the total to four student suicides at the university for this academic year.

Despite these incidents, students claim universities are at times reluctant to support victims.

After her suicide attempt while at Yale, Rachel Williams was forced to withdraw from the university with no guaranteed readmission. After a one-year leave of absence, the university allowed her to reapply and return to the university only after carefully screening her mental health and ensuring she posed no liability, Williams wrote in a column for the Yale Daily News.

“Those of us who have admitted, at some point or another, that we are legitimately not okay, have learned that there are real and devastating consequences of telling the truth,” she wrote. “Because Yale does not want people who are not okay. Yale does not want people who are struggling, who are fighting. Yale, out of concern for its own image, wants them to leave. And Yale makes them.”

A victim of a sexual assault, University of Pennsylvania senior Carissa Lunquist checked herself into the hospital in October after her attacker was acquitted. When she returned to school in January, the university did not confirm her re-enrollment until mid-February. Lunquist said she would have taken legal action against the university if she had not been re-enrolled.

“I feel like Penn wants me to say I’m okay, I’ve moved past it,” she said to the The Daily Pennsylvanian. “But I’m not going to tell them that things are fine. … Being here is really hard because of the way the whole system seems to have failed me, even though I did the whole process correctly.”

Though Yale and the University of Pennsylvania each offer free counseling services to all students, both schools’ systems have received recent criticism. In 2013, Yale College Council’s Report on Mental Health said “negative perceptions of [Mental Health and Counseling] are prevalent.”

The report cited long wait times before initial appointments and too few therapists for the number of patients as causes of concern. In 2012–13, the average wait time for an appointment with the school mental health services at the University of Pennsylvania was 13.2 days. According to an article in The Daily Pennsylvanian, this has been a large contributor to rising student dissatisfaction with the system.

A look at Virginia Tech Services

Since the massacre seven years ago — in which undergraduate student Seung-Hui Cho fired upon 47 individuals, killing 32 before committing suicide — Virginia Tech has expanded the resources of the Cook Counseling Center, the university’s main mental health services provider.

“We’re changing and evolving all the time,” said Charles Anderson, associate director of the Center. “We’ve gone to this walk-in system just as of this year, beginning in the fall of 2013. We’re always trying to improve our services and take a good look at ourselves to try and see how we can do our work better, do our jobs better.”

In addition to this change, which allows students in distress to be seen without a set appointment, the Center retains an on-call counselor — available to students at any time day or night — and conducts a weekly health and wellness series. The Center also provides training to faculty, staff, students and resident assistants.

Since the 2007 tragedy, Virginia Tech has established a threat assessment team comprised of multiple departments — incorporating members of the Office of the Dean of Students, the Counseling Center and the Virginia Tech Police Department, among others — to review cases of potential threat on campus, whether from students, faculty or staff. The university also established the Crisis Assessment, Response and Education Team to address issues pertaining exclusively to the student body.

“It is a way of responding to emerging concerns that might show up that aren’t necessarily threat related but might be related to students’ psychological wellbeing,” Anderson said. “Since 2007, there have been a lot of changes that have taken place not only at Virginia Tech, but really across the country.”

Other campuses, including Temple University, have followed Virginia Tech’s lead.

“The CARE Team was formalized following the Virginia Tech shootings to provide a central resource for those troubled by students’ problematic behaviors,” Temple University’s Faculty Herald newsletter stated. “Typical CARE Team referrals include matters of self injury, suicide attempts, depression … and a wide range of other issues.”

Another major change at the Cook Counseling Center, Anderson added, has been the launch of a case manager position.

“He not only helps us deal with behavioral issues on campus and providing assessments for people that we’re concerned about — he also is involved in tracking people here who might go into the hospital system,” Anderson said. “We are able to coordinate follow-up care after they are released from the hospital, and we are also able to have an active role in the decision-making process for whether or not a person is ready to be released back into the community.”

Virginia Tech continues to face a significant challenge, however, in that students who check into the hospital on a voluntary basis are not required to inform the university.

“They have no obligation to let us know,” Anderson said. “This is an area where a person’s right to seek treatment overrides anything else.”

William & Mary Services

The William & Mary Counseling Center offers scheduled appointments throughout the week for students. In the event of an emergency — described explicitly as suicide threats or attempts, rape, sexual assault or other trauma, and severely disorganized, psychotic, or out of control behavior — the Center staff are on-call and available for students at all times.

The college is the former school of Charlottesville Sen. Creigh Deeds’ son Austin “Gus” Deeds, who repeatedly stabbed his father before taking his own life last November. Gus suffered from bipolar disorder and had been enrolled at William & Mary since 2007, though William & Mary spokesperson Brian Whitson told The Guardian Deeds’ time at the university was not continuous. Gus withdrew from the school a month before the stabbing ensued.

The Center also provides consultations to RAs with specific concerns about students in their care, and hosts a range of workshops and programs encompassing issues surrounding relationships, academics and personal health and wellbeing, which are available upon request.

The director of the William & Mary Counseling Center was not available for comment.

Published April 24, 2014 in News

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