Colleges Look to a Wider Network to Address Student Mental Health

Article excerpt

Byline: Ricki Morell

Universities are training everyone from college coaches to fraternity brothers on how to identify students who need help.

When Jennifer was a freshman at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, the pressure and the workload overwhelmed her. Though she had seen therapists in the past for anxiety, she had never been treated for depression. But at school, she sank into such despair that she tried to commit suicide by overdosing on pills. She ended up in the hospital, where she finally began to get the help she needed.

Now a senior, Jennifer, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her privacy, depends on her weekly therapy sessions to stay on track. She also knows that resident advisers (RAs) and professors specifically trained in suicide prevention help keep an eye on her mental health; they will make sure she gets to the counseling center if they think she needs immediate help. "Now, it's a requirement for the RAs to get training," says Jennifer. "If I get into a bad situation, there's someone on my floor I can go to talk to."

It took a crisis to introduce Jennifer to Western Kentucky's campus counseling center, but these days the center is trying to prevent just that: it's looking to head off emergencies before they begin by reaching students like Jennifer where they spend most of their time--in classrooms and in dorm rooms. What's more, professors get involved too. "And if there's something in a class that is bothering me, I can go talk to my professor and ask them for a little lenience."

Ten years ago, a student with suicidal tendencies might have informally talked to a residence adviser or a favorite professor, who may not have recognized or told others about worrisome warning signs. But, today most college campuses have trained those advisers and teachers to recognize unusual behavior, so they know exactly how and where to report concerns. This strategy of using a formalized support network to prevent suicides and violence began trickling onto college campuses around 2005, when new federal funding for suicide prevention came into play. The method gained traction in 2007, after the Virginia Tech massacre caught the campus by surprise. By training a wider network of college community members--everyone from college coaches to fraternity brothers--schools are reaching outside the walls of the counseling office and into the everyday lives of students to offer help. But with this kind of attention comes heightened privacy concerns, as colleges walk the fine line between preventing harmful acts while preserving student confidentiality.

Universities are under more pressure to keep students mentally healthy and safe since the Virginia Tech shootings, in which a student, Seung Hui Cho, killed 32 people before fatally shooting himself. In 2008, another high-profile mass shooting occurred at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill. And in 2010, a rash of highly publicized suicides at Cornell University , as well as the suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi , have thrust campus mental-health issues back into the spotlight. "Following the Virginia Tech shootings, there was a push to put crisis funding into mental health so we could learn how to identify who might be at risk," says Brian Van Brunt, president of the American College Counseling Association , and Western Kentucky's director of counseling and testing. "We are trying to reach out to students who might never enter counseling."

Today, mental-health counselors must do more than sit in their offices and wait for students to come to them, says Van Brunt, who is Jennifer's counselor. Most counseling centers now run "gatekeeper" programs that train the community to act as the first responders to signs of trouble. People who see students every day--not just professors and RAs, but fraternity members, athletic teammates, and coaches--learn to watch for warning signs. …