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Breaking the Silence: Mental Health and Trauma on Campus


It was coincidental that the American College Health Association’s (ACHA’s) Gun Safety Task Force met shortly after the Michigan State University shooting earlier this month on Feb. 13, said Dr. Keith Williamson, co-chair of the task force and medical director at the Vinson Health Center at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, TX.

Dr. Keith Williamson, co-chair of the ACHA Gun Safety Task Force and medical director at the Vinson Health Center at Midwestern State University.Dr. Keith Williamson, co-chair of the ACHA Gun Safety Task Force and medical director at the Vinson Health Center at Midwestern State University.“Every time one of these events happens, it feels like we’re losing ground, that this is getting away from us,” said Williamson.

ACHA’s Gun Safety Task Force, five doctors and scholars from institutions across the nation, works to “come to grips with this phenomenon in society, with the ultimate goal being to understand it and diminish its occurrence,” said Williamson. “We are working to come up with some sort of understanding that will help provide guidance for ACHA when they have to deal with heart and mind events surrounding a shooting.”

While shootings on campus are extremely rare, said Williamson, the mental health and wellbeing of students, faculty, and staff can be deeply impacted by these events, which is why it is crucial that institutions of higher education respond to these incidents.

“The core mission of higher education is to educate our young people and put them into leadership roles for our society in the future,” said Williamson. “If [those in higher education] cannot focus on that, the institutional core mission is disrupted.”

Between 2013 and 2021, college students’ rates of depression and anxiety have increased by 135% and 110% respectively, according to research conducted by Boston University in 2021. There are many potential contributing factors to this increase, including financial concerns, the pandemic, and an overall sense of being unsafe, said John Richter, director of public policy at the Mental Health Association in New York State (MHANYS). MHANYS has been working to raise mental health awareness in the state since 1960.

But most suggested causal reasons for this increase need further study, said Richter. What experts do know is that mental illnesses are blamed as the reason for mass shootings, which further spreads stigma and a misunderstanding of mental health.

“Most people with mental illness are not any more dangerous than anyone else,” said Richter. “In fact, people with mental illness are 11 times more likely to be a victim of a violent act than they are to be the perpetrator.”

While the majority of college presidents say that providing mental health support for students is a priority, lack of resources and funding, a negative stigma, and an overall unfamiliarity with identifying mental illnesses can keep learners and educators on campus from accessing the support needed during trying times. It’s why MHANYS and Williamson’s Task Force are working to provide institutions with better understanding and sustainable resources that can keep college campuses healthy and thriving through the darkness.

Dr. Laura Erickson-Schroth, chief medical officer of the JED Foundation.Dr. Laura Erickson-Schroth, chief medical officer of the JED Foundation.Dr. Laura Erickson-Schroth, chief medical officer of the JED Foundation, a nonprofit working to protect the emotional wellbeing of young adults and teens, said that students do not necessarily have to experience a traumatic event on their own campus to be affected by it.

“Hearing about violence at other schools or seeing it depicted in the news can bring up difficult emotions, especially for young people who have experienced violence in the past. That’s why it’s important for all schools to offer support and resources after these types of events,” said Erickson-Schroth. “Communities of care are essential in supporting young people through tragedies. Even outside of tragedies, communities of care are proven to improve mental health and reduce suicide in young people. When teens and young adults feel supported by their school community, they have a safety net to catch them if they fall.”

Erickson-Schroth said it’s important for institutions to acknowledge violent events have occurred and let them know what support resources are available.

Preparing the campus community for violence incidence can take place through well-conducted, calm, emergency drills and collaboration between campus and community police forces. Those two things can go a long way to address fear and anxiety surrounding mass shootings, Williamson said.

 “The more help we can get to people, the better they are able to mentally and psychosocially deal with the trauma in their lives, the better they’ll come out of it,” said Williamson.

Institutions that offer peer counseling have found great success in helping their students work through mental health struggles, Richter said. At the University at Albany, the Middle Earth Peer Assistance Program, begun in 1970, trains volunteer student counselors who meet with other students.

“They’re not replacements for counselors, but [peers] can be very helpful, especially to steer students towards help,” said Richter. “They’ve been shown to be very helpful for students who are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression in early recognition and getting people comfortable with the idea of getting help, before things become clinical.”

Richter agreed that having thorough plans for emergency situations can be key to helping a campus navigate potentially traumatizing events. Overall, more training and training earlier on, in the K-12 level, needs to be conducted, said Richter, so more people know how to not only recognize emergent mental health issues but also to encourage help-seeking behavior.

“Training helps build your confidence in what to say and how to say it. Often when someone is struggling, even to the point where they’re suicidal, a lot of people sense something’s wrong but don’t know what to do,” said Richter. “But when they are trained and do approach, it’s often the first time [that other] person has shared with another human being what’s going on with them and how desperate they really are—breaking that silence.”

Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].

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