Focusing on College Students’ Mental Health (For the Benefit of the Neurotypical)
I live in Los Angeles and the local papers have been abuzz about the recent stabbing of a UCLA student by another student during science lab. Apparently a professor reported concerns about the alleged attacker’s mental health about 10 months ago. And so, according to the LA Times:
The recent arrest of a UCLA student in the brutal stabbing of a classmate in a campus chemistry lab has again focused attention on an issue that gripped the nation after the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech: the mental health of troubled college students. The Virginia Tech shootings, which left 32 victims and the gunman dead, raised difficult questions about how a disturbed student could have been allowed to remain at the school despite danger signs. The Virginia Tech killings were followed last year by a deadly attack at Northern Illinois University, in which a former graduate student killed five students and himself.
So – to be clear – the focus on students’ mental health has the primary goal of identifying students who are at risk of violent attacks on other students and staff. And presumably treating or confining them. While protecting the safety of students and staff is unequivocally something that a school should be doing, characterizing that goal as “focusing on college students’ mental health” ignores violent crimes against staff or students committed by people without mental illness. It also does a vast disservice to the vast majority of students with mental illness who are at zero risk for committing premeditated violent crimes.
The US Department of Justice estimates that there are 34,000 violent crimes committed against college students on college campuses every year. Most of those were non-fatal, there were 20 on-campus murders in 2000 (there were about 1800 rapes in the same year). While it’s likely that some of those violent crimes were committed by a student with a mental disability, the vast majority of them were not. It’s certainly more likely that a college student who is a victim of violent crime is affected by one of these “garden variety” crimes than something like the incidents in the article – of which there have only been 3 since 2007.
Additionally, the message that focusing on mental health is solely to prevent these incidents marginalizes and harms college students with mental illness who aren’t ever going to kill or physically attack anybody, much less bring a gun to class and start shooting randomly. Those students are being told that people with mental illness are scary and dangerous and need to be found right away so they can be kept away from other students.
Many colleges now require a mental health assessment for a troubled student to stay enrolled and more readily expel those who refuse to comply, said Brian Van Brunt, president-elect of the American College Counseling Assn. who heads the counseling center at Western Kentucky University.
There are a whole lot of things wrong with this. First, it’s very unclear who will be subject to this kind of review – who counts as a “troubled student”? Once a student is required to undergo this review, they’re required to subject to a psych assessment and disclose past traumas, sexual assaults, all kinds of things to the college administration, at the threat of expulsion. And the implication is that if the college doesn’t like the outcome of the mental health assessment, the student might be expelled on the basis of their mental health status.
This gives students a huge incentive to stay quiet about their mental health concerns, to hide them. Going to student health for psych counseling might trigger a review by the administration to see if a student was too sick to be at school. Talking to an RA might result in a report to student services. Even fellow students might report you to be psychologically reviewed by the administration. And it’s not at all clear the colleges are that enthusiastic about keeping these students around:
Colleges try to retain students if they are not violent, said Keith Anderson, chairman of the American College Health Assn.’s best practices task force in mental health. “The goal is to keep them in school, keep them functioning and engaged, and in treatment at the same time,” said Anderson, who is a staff psychologist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Tory, N.Y
“Try to retain students if they are not violent” is a far cry from “affirmatively and eagerly addresses the mental health needs of students.” It sounds an awful lot like “will tolerate those students, I guess.” And that message is having an effect:
In a recent survey of campus health officials, the American College Counseling Assn. report noted “growing intolerance by faculty and others about students perceived to be odd.”
“Maybe if we shun the weirdos, they’ll leave before we have to expel them!” It’s clear that this focus on mental health is not at all for the benefit of those college students with mental illness – it will affirmatively interfere with their ability to get support and treatment. It will make things worse for them. So the only motivation for this increased focus on mental health is to protect the neurotypical from the violent attacks from individuals with mental illness, who are considered universally dangerous and deserving of suspicion. This new focus is for the comfort of the neurotypical, at the direct expense of students with mental illness.