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.

24 Comments

  1. Well that makes me very glad I never wanted to go to college in the first place. I’m sure my laundry list would result in me being seen as odd at the very least, and DID would probably be reinterpreted into MURDEROUS CRAZY! the same way schizophrenia is stereotyped 😐 Ugh the poisonous ableism.

    (Incidentally, you said “at the thread of expulsion” where I assume you meant threat. The copyeditor in me is compelled to point this out 🙂 )
    .-= Shiyiya´s last blog ..Identifying =-.

  2. My school tried to get me to leave after I had a mental breakdown thanks to being misdiagnosed and prescribed the wrong medication *by our counseling services*. I fought back, finished my semester, and graduated on time with honors, thank god. Colleges absolutely need to figure this stuff out immediately. I was a good student with a high GPA and I was well-involved on campus. I posed no danger to anyone but myself.

  3. I have stats that say people with mental health conditions are 2.5 times more likely than the “general” population to be the victim of a violent crime.

    But let’s not use common sense to sort anything out.

  4. This emphasis on the mentally disabled as the “troubled” ones also ignores the mass murders by “ordinary seeming” white men who are going after their victims for being women or minorities or other revenge fantasies like the coworkers they think did them wrong. Those seem to be much more common, but preventing them would require tackling the culture of privilege in our society, and we wouldn’t want that

  5. Anna – That’s a really scary stat right there 🙁

  6. There are so, so many things wrong with this.

    One of the things that always bothers meabout reports of school schootings and the like is the desperate scramble for easy answers and solutions. The kid listened to rock music? Lets condemn Marilin Manson. They played online-games? Keep all the millions of kids who play away from their computers. He had a mental illness? Kick all the kids with problemsout of school.

    It is so frustrating,because suddenly everyone who has some arbitrary commonality with the shooter is looked at as a suspect. And in this case, it is especially damaging, because they are reinforcing common misconception and prejudices about mental health, hurting so many people in the process.

    Would expelling people from a college they paied for because they have mental health issues even be legal without any concrete evidence that this particular student poses a real threat?

    I can’t help wondering if some people aren’t glad to have an excuse to get rid of all those student with “special needs”, saving money that no longer has to be spent on accomodating them.

    Also, how exactly do they think they will be ableto distingish between those students who might pose a threat and those who don’t? Will they “err on the side of caution” and thereby deprive so many students of their right to a good education? Apart fromthe moral and ethical implication, do they not see the potential lawsuits comming? This is discrimination in a really, really obvious form.

    They wouldn’t dare to, for example,expell all the male students to prevent the femaleones from being raped. But then, rape on campus doesn’t get that much media attention.

  7. Oh my – what about all the women who are raped on campus by “neurotypical” guys? I’m thinking most rapists present as mostly “normal.” And those who’ve been assaulted might, you know, act a tad bit weird.

  8. Leigh – Good point. And I ended up dropping out of uni of my own accord, but I do wonder if they would have done if I didn’t.

    (For the record, my sexual assaults/rapes happened just before and during my time at uni, but not on campus. I still acted pretty “weird”, especially when I had one-on-one tutorials – that said, being shut in a room with a male tutor can do that to you if you’ve not had great experiences with guys.)

    PS: Y’all will probably have to tell me when to shut up, I talk way too much.

  9. I had a school try to get rid of me because I was banging my head (While in severe untreated pain, in response to a situation where someone who worked for the college was trying to bar my interpreter from helping me communicate with them about my need for assistance with basic things like eating). They marched me to the counseling department where a group if people ganged up on me to tell me that people like me did not belong in college. I did end up having to leave but it was absolutely not because I scared people by banging my head or running under tables or any of the other “crazy” responses I had to things.
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..Stuff I’ve been reading. =-.

  10. Urgh. I’ve had some personal experiences with my hall mates at college thinking I must be dangerous and scary and all of that. I guess my college handled it better than throwing me out completely, but it still caused a ton of problems and was generally unpleasant to deal with. (This involved my having to change rooms several times.)

    I wonder how many neuro-atypical students have difficulties finishing college, or hurt themselves. Yet that issue never seems to come up in these kinds of discussions. I wonder also how many students face problems due to blatant discrimination which so many people display towards neuro-atypical individuals.

    I loathe the assumption that neuro-atypical = violent. It’s such a tautological way of defining neuro-atypicality. If you do something violent, you can’t possibly be neurotypical (according to many people). Which is a nice, fallacious way to excise all violent people from the “normal” category while stigmatizing the rest of us even more than we already are.
    .-= Sarah´s last blog ..The Power of Self-Identification =-.

  11. I knew the head of the the counseling center at GWU (she’s a good family friend). Anyway, after the Virginia Tech shootings I believe it was GW wanted to institute something along the lines of this. Every student that went in for counseling had to be reported to the school. Anyone who posed a threat to others reported as well (which is a silly rule for the school to impose because as a psychologist that’s the law anyway). But basically it was instituting a mental health witch hunt on its students. Well my family friend thought it was atrocious and quit. Although I’m sure they found someone to take her place and enforce these policies.

    I know I relied on the counseling center when I went to college, but if I had known even the fact that I saw a therapist would’ve been reported to the administration or whoever I don’t think I ever would have gone. Then who knows what would’ve happened when I went through my severe depression. I might not be here anymore. Oh, and going through that severe depression I never once hurt another human being, just myself.

  12. wow – i certainly had a lot of problems with the administrators at my university based on my mental health problems and hospitalizations during the time i was enrolled, but i hadn’t realized quite how prevalent those problems were. like Julie, my symptoms were exacerbated and my treatment hindered by the university health service (putting someone with bipolar on antidepressants without a mood stabilizer triggers mania with psychotic features that necessitated hospitalization!), which made the whole thing particularly frustrating.

    it’s disappointing that a subject that would benefit so much from attention and reform is receiving attention only through the lens of preventing violent attacks against NTs. 🙁

  13. This terrifies me because I’m *at* university and trying to get an appointment with the counselling service, both because of autistic issues and because I think the clinical depression that haunted my teens and never quite went away is making a comeback. You have no idea how much I am praying that my university doesn’t pull this shit, because I need that damn therapist.
    .-= Kaz´s last blog ..So I keep running into ableism at uni =-.

  14. I’ve been seeing a therapist at the Psychiatric Service Center since April. It’s cheap and I don’t have to go through insurance. And I asked, early on, about the recording tools in the room (audio and visual). I was told they were about *her*, not me, and they’re reviewed to see if she’s doing a good job. (She’s a grad student.)

    However, I had a brush with the “report all odd people” practice a year ago. One day, the school paper had an article about how professors were encouraged to report “troubled” students so they could get counseling (I think they mentioned suicide). Later that day, we were discussing a work in English. I was the only one who had a certain opinion (I empathized with a character everyone else hated). For reasons most likely unrelated to the class, though it may have been a trigger, I cried for about an hour after the class, and may (or may not, don’t remember) have e-mailed my professor. We got along well.

    Later, I got a call from the professor. She wanted to sit down and eat somewhere. I was worried she was calling me about the stuff in the article, but she didn’t even know about it. She was just genuinely worried about another human being. Needless to say, she is one of my favorite professors.
    .-= Kaitlyn´s last blog ..The Franken Senate Defense Appropriations Amendment =-.

  15. Wow. This hit really, really close to home for me. I’ve actually not had many problems with professors/administrators in regards to my mental illness, but when I lived in the dorms, Housing was freaking terrible. After I attempted to kill myself, I was brought in for a meeting with my area supervisor and the head of housing. They treated me like I’d gotten busted for drinking or something, and wanted me to sign a waiver of confidentiality so they could talk to my therapist. Um, no. I found out later that my best friend (an RA in a different area of the dorms than the one I lived in, and the first person I contacted afterward) was pulled in for a similar meeting, where he was told that they didn’t want “people like her” (me) living in the dorms. And people wonder why I refuse to do anything that gives money to Housing…

  16. Kaitlyn, wow. The thing is, those were totally rational fears you had. Because it’s not at all out of the realm of possibility that those things would be happening. Thank goodness things turned out ok. I’m afraid things are just going to keep getting worse, slowly, over time, because no one cares about helping disabled students (the ones who don’t hit all the right sympathy spots, which is most of us) get through their life and succeed at their goals, they care about keeping themselves from being affected by us and our needs. And it’s never gonna get better for us for so long as that is the frame of mind.

  17. That’s the odd thing about mental health issues in college environments. A lot of people who report us weirdos to authorities are operating under the illusion that they’re “just trying to help.” I think perhaps some of the people who told the Dean of Students’ office about me were thinking of themselves as Good Samaritans, who were perhaps preventing a suicide. But…at some point “trying to help” merges with neuro-atypical witch-hunting in a very ableist way. I tried telling one of the people I lived near that I’m an Asperger’s autistic, and that things which seem “scary” to other people are pretty much my normal mode of functioning. Didn’t stop people from e-mailing the DoS over every “weird” thing they overheard from then on. So I can’t help but think that while much of the initial concern over my behavior may have been couched in the language of “trying to help,” in actuality people were really more concerned about living in the same suite as a neuro-atypical person.

    People who are genuinely concerned about others’ mental health *can* go about trying to help in a respectful way. Actually talking to the other person is a great step, like Kaitlyn’s professor did. But simply reporting us to the counseling center/Dean of Students/wherever? That is not helping, at all. That is engaging in an ableist witch hunt which causes us to be anxious and paranoid about which of our neighbors/classmates/professors is reporting on our behavior.
    .-= Sarah´s last blog ..The Power of Self-Identification =-.

  18. When I was in grad school, I went to the counseling center for help with severe depression. I was warmly encouraged to take time out from school until I got better – they would help work things out with my department, and it wouldn’t reflect badly on me. I happily consented to that. But they didn’t explain that by withdrawing, I lost all access to their counseling services because I was no longer a current student. In hindsight I felt stupid for not realizing that was how it would work – they certainly acted as though I was stupid for it – but they had been so full of reassurances, so seemingly eager to help, that it really seemed like a nasty trick for them not to mention that key detail. It was a brilliant “gotcha!” and really left me feeling that I was at fault. So there I was, with crippling depression, no job prospects, just kicked out of school – no access to mental health care. Needless to say, I never finished my degree. I spent most of the next 5 years in bed, and if I didn’t have my husband to keep a roof over my head, I may have ended up somewhere much worse.

  19. Wow! I am furious right now. How *dare* they? I don’t know much about US Law, but that has got to be an ADA/IDEA violation.

    I went to Oxford University, didn’t receive adequate accomodations for my disabilities and couldn’t cope. I got kicked out, developed severe mental health problems and almost died.

    I’m in my first term at Durham University and it’s so different. They really are properly accessible, and they don’t make me feel bad for asking for help. Even though I now need MORE accomodations because of the mental health stuff.
    .-= sanabituranima´s last blog ..A murderer and a thief =-.

  20. Wow, this makes me feel like crap. I’ve already missed a semester because of my mental health issues and this really just makes me not want to ask for help at all.

    The Disability services office at my current school sucks, but I am hopeful that where ever I transfer to will be better.
    .-= thetroubleis´s last blog ..On work. =-.

  21. I figured I’d throw in my two cents. I go to Rensselaer Polytech, and am counselled by a social worker and a psychiatrist in Dr Anderson’s Counselling Center. They have done great work in helping me live with my OCD and panic attacks, as well as confront potential triggers (I was sexually assaulted before I went to college) on campus. I’d have to say that RPI does a very good job of making the counselors seem approachable and not a “last resort” for “weirdos”, which is what Dr Anderson’s statement (sadly) comes across as saying. I think something like 75 to 80 percent of the undergrads here go to the center at least once.
    It’s probably worth noting that all sessions are confidential, and are not reported to the dean of students office unless someone needs to take a leave of absence (which I almost had to do — and even then, I don’t think the dean’s office needs to know about it). I know it’s not that way at other schools (Boston University, for example), which is just shameful.

  22. I was forced to take a medical leave because of my depression. It was not at all beneficial. The opposite. I never went back.

  23. My school was OK about this stuff, despite having a school shooting in 1991, because most of the kids there had SOME kind of mental health issue, whether it was ADD or Asperger’s or anxiety or depression or bipolar disorder or any number of other things. If they tried to kick out all the neuro-atypical students, they’d have a very small school.

    I did once email the Residence Director about a student (bipolar, I think) who said he wanted to kill himself. I don’t know what she did about it, but he wasn’t in school for the rest of the semester (I think he came back later, but I’m not sure). I always feel really torn about that kind of situation because people who admit to suicidal thoughts are treated as if they’re small children, and often put in institutions where their autonomy is completely taken away, which might make them less likely to talk about their suicidal impulses (you think?). So I didn’t want this guy to kill himself, but I also didn’t want him to be treated like that. I hope the RD managed to get him some help without having to institutionalize him.
    .-= notemily´s last blog ..Quiz: Kishi Creation or Fashionista Flop? =-.

  24. This is incredibly depressing, but still something that I think needs to have a spotlight shined on it so people might see that it’s so wrong.