Colleges in Washington State Launch Student Mental Health Programs

High-profile campus killings spur the creation of mental health teams at colleges across Washington state. The goal is to watch troubled students. Washington campuses are getting more involved in monitoring student mental health in the wake of four high-profile campus killings within the past year.

“The strategy is, the earlier we can get to those students, the greater the likelihood that their concerns can be resolved before they escalate,” said Eric Godfrey, vice provost for student life at the University of Washington.

The UW and Seattle Central Community College both have created teams of mental health professionals to gauge the condition of troubled students and make recommendations about their care.

The UW’s “consultation and assessment team” has been operating for about four months, and Seattle Central’s “risk assessment team” is expected to begin operating before classes start this fall.

When faculty members, friends or family members report peculiar student behavior to campus officials, the teams will assess the seriousness of the situation and recommend to the student how to seek help.

A year ago, UW staff member Rebecca Griego was shot and killed in her Gould Hall office by ex-boyfriend Jonathan Rowan, who then turned the gun on himself. Rowan wasn’t a student at the university, but the murder-suicide prompted the UW to implement new security measures, such as a text-message alert system, crisis hot line and training for its staff.

Seattle Central had a similar scare in October, when a student came to school with a loaded handgun tucked into his pants and two more guns and ammunition clips in his backpack. When questioned by police, the young man said he was fearful for his life and produced a concealed weapons permit.

The student was suspended for a year for violating the school’s “no guns” policy. Because of his permit, no criminal charges were filed.

“In the course of about 24 hours, they tried to find some kind of law that he broke, and he actually didn’t break any laws,” lead counselor Lori Miller said. “The only regulation he violated was that he violated school policy.”

The warning signs aren’t always obvious, but college counselors say they can include withdrawn behavior, declining hygiene, sleeping in class, angry outbursts – even something as innocuous as habitual lateness.

Dr. Susan Hawkins, director of Seattle University’s counseling and psychological services, cautioned not to “overpathologize” the behavior of young students.

“It is important to recognize that late adolescence the college years are a time of trying on new identities, new behavior and extreme manners of dress and other changes that are well within what’s normal,” Hawkins wrote in an e-mail. “Young adults are often passionate in (their) feelings, ideas and expressions.”

Hawkins said it’s hard to generalize about the issues students face, but she added, “Our most-stressed students tend to be law students and nursing students.”

Dave Brown, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate at the UW, said it’s the schools’ responsibility to provide free mental health services to students to help ensure their success.

He recalled sitting in his orientation at the UW and listening to a psychologist say that by choosing to go to law school, he and his soon-to-be colleagues were at a greater risk for drug addiction, clinical depression and similar disorders. “Welcome to law school,” Brown said.

But counselors and local university officials say there’s another problem facing campus mental health services: staffing shortages. Godfrey said the UW wants to increase its counseling staff by as many as five or six positions. The counseling center employs eight psychologists now.

Starting next fall, counseling services at the UW will be free. But for spring and summer quarters, students still have to pay a $30 fee starting with their seventh session.

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