More than 20 million college students across the nation will start school this month, just weeks after James Holmes, a Colorado graduate student, allegedly shot and killed 12 people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.
Experts warn that colleges across the country are seeing increases in students with severe mental health histories while campus counseling centers face stricter budgets.
Holmes had sought counseling from the University of Colorado at the University of Colorado and at one time, was a successful applicant to the University of Illinois.
In another University of Illinois connection, Steven Kazmierczak was a student at the Urbana campus at the time of the 2008 shooting at Northern Illinois University where he shot and killed five people.
With student enrollment on the rise and with students coming in with more severe mental health issues, campus counseling centers are seeing an increase in a demand for services.
Carla McCowan is director of the counseling center at the University of Illinois’ Urbana campus.
She said students coming onto campus are different than they were five years ago.
“More students are reporting they’ve had suicide ideation or attempts prior to coming to college or hospitalizations prior to coming to college,” McCowan said. “When they get here, they’ve had pretty significant mental health history. That didn’t used to be the case.”
More than 10,000 students on the Illinois campus seek help from counseling center, which has 20 full-time counselors.
Many have serious problems and more than 60 attempted suicide last year.
Earlier this year, the Investigative Journalism Education Consortium, a network of journalism faculty and students at Midwest universities and colleges funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation based in Chicago, examined mental health services at campus counseling centers in Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and Missouri.
The review found that centers often fell far short of the number of mental health providers recommended by the International Association of Counseling Service and also found that recommended safety measures following campus shootings at Northern Illinois University and Virginia Tech have not been met or are being slowly implemented.
Dan Jones is the president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors. He said increased enrollment, demand for services, and students with mental health history have created a perfect storm for counseling centers –and too many students are not getting the support and services they want or need.
Jones sees the problems firsthand because he is also director of the Appalachian State University counseling center in North Carolina.
“A lot of counseling centers have to keep people on a waiting list to get them in as soon as they can, sometimes those waits are weeks and weeks to get in for ongoing counseling services,” he said.
Recently, Jones’ association released a statement on the shooting in Colorado.
“We as an organization are heavily involved in collegiate mental health issues and we know that statistically speaking the mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators of violence,” he said. “We also know that the base rates for rampage shooters, such as this guy in Aurora or Cho at Virginia Tech are so low that there are no reliable valid ways of predicting violence like that.”
In its statement, the group urges support for increases in college mental health services.
Yet over the past few years, campus mental health centers have struggled to provide services amid budget constraints.
Despite recommendations that counseling centers provide one counselor for every 1,500 students, many can only fund one counselor for every 2,000 students at best.
Meanwhile, high profile campus violence such as the shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University prompted college campuses across the country to create better ways to identify and help troubled students. This adds to the demand of campus counseling centers.
Anne Glavin, president of the international Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, said campus violence has been documented since the 1800s but with larger school populations, there’s a greater chance of incidents occurring.
“So the challenges for campus law enforcement, indeed colleges and universities in mental health counselors in higher education has been how to get people in what I tend to call these safety nets and get them identified and get them some help and resources so that we can avoid the actual violent incident,” Glavin said.
Such campus safety nets have taken the form of teams dedicated to behavioral intervention, care or threat assessment.
Typically these teams are made up of people from several departments across campus, including mental health services, student housing, and campus police.
Dan Jones said there is no science to predicting violent behavior
But these safety nets can help students who may be potentially dangerous to themselves or others.
“The side effect of having those safety nets is that more and more people are being referred to the counseling center, people from behavioral intervention teams, care teams, threat assessment teams,” Jones said. “There’s all these safety nets that are catching folks and they’re being evaluated for treatment and services and evaluation but you know the economic situation in recent years has not allowed for much increase in staff and resources.”
Jones said he believes nationwide support is needed for college mental health services, much like recent support for better mental health services in the Veterans Administration.
“I wish we could influence the federal government but we’d almost have to influence 50 state governments, the board of trustees for all the private universities, so it’s hard to lobby for all the countrywide change but I think that’s what we need,” he said.
(This story was reported for the Investigative Journalism Education Consortium and funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation of Chicago)