More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Better Mental Health Services Needed on Campus
Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A joint committee comprised of individuals from the Departments of Justice, Education, and Health and Human Services, who were called together by President Bush 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.

The report makes grand and presumably well-meaning statements built around phrases like "effective coordination," "legitimate information sharing" and "appropriate community integration" and lists some very valid points of concern, but it offers little in the way of specific recommendations for policy revision. Neither does the report call for any additional monetary investment in the mental health services offered on American campuses. Policymakers may not care to hear this, but it's hard to see how information and treatment webs can grow stronger in the absence of significant budget increases, or drastic changes in the way that mental health services are delivered on campus. Some mental health advocates claim that the report is simply a rehash of previously established facts, offering mere generalizations in place of substantive guidance. Issuing a statement to the effect that "we need to encourage those in need to seek treatment" is hardly evidence of the serious research with which these individuals credit themselves. The primary issue is not that patients lack the emotional support to seek treatment - it's that they often do not even have the option.

Much of the group's commentary does, however, at least point in the right direction: as its authors suggest, many school officials as well as mental health professionals remain confused about how to proceed along the slippery slope presented by the need to alert others to the actions of individuals who pose serious risks to themselves and their peers. We need to clarify the 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 organized conference 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 the panel's undeniably correct assertions: responsible parties need to take all necessary measures to ensure that deadly firearms do not fall into the hands of those whose mental instabilities present a threat to the community at large.

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

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

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

The mental health services on the majority of our college campuses stand in sore need of a complete overhaul. Quality treatment for mental illness must be available and discreet. The ways by which to access it immediately must be common knowledge to every student. While students need supportive adults and mental health professionals with whom to discuss less sensational concerns like homesickness, weight loss and substance abuse, those who pose serious threats to themselves or others should be treated accordingly - and this does not imply giving all parties access to their most personal information. Obsessive attention to security concerns may lead some patients to believe that their privacy rights have been violated. But the line may occasionally need to be crossed, and establishing where and when that must happen will better serve the community in the end.
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