Science Careers Blog

April 14, 2008

Campus Mental Health Services: A Push from Administrators and Faculty

One year after the Virginia Tech shootings, and weeks after another multiple-fatal shooting incident at Northern Illinois University, campus administrators and faculty have become much less reluctant to refer to counselors those students they feel are dangers to themselves or others. According to an Associated Press story, via MSNBC, student privacy considerations are now being balanced with concerns for physical safety. Yet questions remain whether university counseling services can handle the crush.

"Administrators are pushing students harder to get help, looking more aggressively for signs of trouble and urging faculty to speakup when they have concerns," writes the AP. It isn't just administrators; faculty are watching student writing assignments for signs of trouble. Universities are recruiting resident advisors and other students to report incidents that indicate violent tendencies.

Until recently, the article says, administrators and faculty felt constrained from reporting these incidents due to a concern for student privacy. Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is often cited as a reason to protect a student's privacy, but that law focuses on student records and allows exceptions "in cases of health and safety emergencies." A new law in Virginia, signed last week, allows institutions to alert parents if students appear dangerous. Some campuses, notably Cornell University, already have estalished policies to notify parents if their children are deemed a threat to themselves or others.

The Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD), the professional society of college counselors, however, recommends involving parents with the student's consent. In a statement released last fall the AUCCD says ...

[S]uggestions that counseling staff routinely involve parents in the treatment process against a student’s will are ill-considered. This abrogation of the student’s rights should only be used when state law allows, when it is a treatment team decision, and when it is a last resort in cases where other options for safety have been explored and discarded.

For increased vigilance to be effective, universities need the capacity in their counseling services to handle the increased load.  As we reported last month in a related story, Canadian campuses are also experiencing a sharp upward demand for mental health services, in some cases, outstripping the capabilities to provide those services quickly. A similar condition is occurring at American universities.

Last April, after the Virginia Tech shootings, Russ Federman, director of University of Virginia's counseling service, testified before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs. He noted that from a national survey of university counseling directors, "we see that in 1996 we had a ratio of one FTE clinical staff per 1598 students. This past year, in 2006 we see a ratio of one per 1697. We are not getting ahead of the curve; if anything, we are sliding behind."


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