The horrible tragedy that came out of Virginia Tech in 2007 served as a wake-up call to the higher education community. No longer could we lull ourselves into thinking of college campuses as insulated bubbles of safety and quiet intellectualism. Making the events of that day even more terrible was the fact that the slayer of 33 people had a mental illness and had been flagged by professors and students alike. Yet because of a misinterpretation of FERPA privacy laws, information about the shooter’s disturbing behavior was not shared. The result was horrifying.
News about the mental health issues of students and the way to deal with those who exhibit disruptive behavior has increased in counseling circles. And in the last year or two, national reports have multiplied about the rising caseloads at colleges and universities for counselors who are dealing with a variety of such issues. The numbers of students seeking help at Georgia Highlands has risen dramatically as well. In Cartersville, Sheryl McKinney has seen her client load triple in just the past year. In Marietta, walk-ins have risen by 30 percent in the last two semesters, Joyce Darden-Atkins reports. In Rome, Chris Wheelus has seen a 41 percent increase in client load over last year.
So what is causing this kind of spike? Like most complex subjects, there are a number of causes. For one, the GHC Student Support Services department has gotten its name out around GHC campuses, and not just for mental health counseling. The department also advises students about coursework and careers, and students take advantage of these free services. But if students coming for advising and career counseling do have personal issues, they usually reveal themselves in the course of their meetings with GHC’s counselors. The poor economy also plays a big role in students’ mental health. Many of GHC’s students work full-time jobs to support families while they are in school taking full loads. That kind of stress can take a toll. Some have family situations that are difficult and emotional to navigate.
Often, faculty members bring students to a counselor because they have noticed something amiss. Perhaps they’ve found a student crying in the restroom. Perhaps they’ve seen signs of domestic abuse. Maybe they’ve learned that the student is homeless. Or heard one talk of suicide. There are a variety of reasons, but they have come for help at all Highlands campuses.
As senseless and devastating as the carnage at Virginia Tech was, the resulting outcome here at Georgia Highlands and at other colleges around the country has been a new emphasis on preparation and prevention so that such a tragedy will not happen in the first place. The Student Support Services group has created Crisis Assessment, Response and Evaluation, or CARE, teams for each campus at GHC. The teams comprise the campus dean, a counselor, a representative from disability services, faculty and staff members. If a faculty member sees a behavior in class that is worrying – a student who had obviously been crying, for example – the first step would be to talk to that student after class.
The student might say she didn’t want to discuss the matter. So the professor would write a memo about the incident and e-mail it to the CARE team. Often this contact is the only one, because the situation can be resolved after class. But the record is there if the situation escalates. More serious is a student who disrupts class with his/her behavior. The faculty member will try to resolve the issue first. If the problem persists, the department chair becomes involved and sends a referral to the CARE team, which meets to consider next steps. The group may suggest that the campus dean meet with the student to resolve the issues. Mostly, this team tries to stay behind the scene so the student doesn’t feel that he is being ganged up on. If the group feels outside intervention is called for, it might recommend a professional assessment. If the student is treated outside and can’t attend class, the team might recommend an academic withdrawal.
Whatever actions are taken, however, have a documentation trail behind them for easy reference and sharing. The system has been designed to avoid the compartmentalization that plagued the Virginia Tech shooter information.
But that doesn’t mean that GHC is set up to offer mental health counseling in the structured, ongoing way most people think of it. The goal at the college is to identify and address behaviors that can impede teaching and learning. And that’s exactly what this team does very well.
McKinney has increased her visits to classrooms to let students know at the beginning of each semester about the services that the Student Support Services group can offer. In doing so, awareness among faculty about such capabilities has grown, increasing their reliance on the services.
Chris Whellus works on the Floyd and Douglasville campuses. Sheryl McKinney stays at Cartersville, which enjoys the largest enrollment of any site. Joyce Darden-Atkins supports both Marietta and Paulding. Allowing them in classes at the beginning of the semester to explain the valuable services available to students makes significant differences in the efficiency and success of handling difficult behaviors and other problems. Ultimately, students benefit. And that’s GHC’s reason for being, after all.