On-campus mental illness issues unique


On-campus mental illness issues unique


By Dick Durbin
Posted Apr 17, 2008 @ 10:59 PM

This week, our nation marked the anniversary of the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech that took 32 lives and wounded 17 other people. Just two months ago, our state was stunned to witness a similar tragic shooting at Northern Illinois University in which 5 students were killed and 17 were wounded.

I cannot imagine the magnitude of heartbreak and pain for friends and families of those killed or the trauma borne by those who survived these tragedies. As we mourn the loss of so many promising young lives, it is important also to learn from these tragedies.

So what are those lessons?

The first is to consider the tortured mind of the shooter. Mental illness is an illness, not a curse. It can and should be treated. Many who receive appropriate counseling and medication lead normal, stable and happy lives. But our laws ignore this reality. We have created legal and financial obstacles to appropriate care. This year, for the first time in a decade, the U.S. Senate has passed a bill to give mental health parity with physical health under the law. The House of Representatives also has passed legislation, and we are negotiating a compromise to fulfill the promise of health parity for millions facing mental health problems.

But the challenge of mental health on our college campuses is unique. Many mental illnesses manifest themselves in this period when young people leave the security of home and regular medical care. The responsibility for the students' well-being shifts many times to colleges and universities struggling with limited resources.

The situation is growing worse. Studies show that 10 percent of college students have contemplated suicide and 45 percent have felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.

Colleges also are encountering students who 10 to 20 years ago would not have been able to attend school because of mental illness, but who can do so today because of advances in treatment of such illness.

To meet the increased need, many schools have tried to increase mental-health education and outreach efforts. But the ratio of students to counselors is growing. Currently, there is only one counselor for every 2,000 students on our college campuses.

NIU and Virginia Tech taught us that mental-health parity and better campus counseling services are not only critical in preventing these tragedies, but in dealing with the aftermath. The victims were not just those who were killed or injured in the shootings. Others have mental scars that are less obvious than bullet wounds but often slower to heal.

The emotional trauma experienced by many students, faculty and families might require years of therapy and counseling.

Finally, when the unthinkable does happen, as it did at Virginia Tech and NIU, we need to respond quickly and effectively to the immediate and long-term needs of the affected college community.

Our colleges and law-enforcement agencies have made great strides in preparing for and responding to active-shooter situations, progress reflected in the admirable response to the NIU shootings.

But we also need to view these violent tragedies on our campuses for what they are — catastrophes, like natural disasters, that require a sustained and coordinated recovery effort in the months that follow.

We have a federal agency to deal with hurricanes, earthquakes and floods. But there is no central federal resource to help guide college communities through the recovery process. In the days and weeks after the shootings in DeKalb, NIU officials found themselves being led in circles through the bureaucracies at the federal departments of Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services, not to mention numerous state agencies. These entities, all of whom were well-meaning, often didn't talk to one another, forcing school officials and victims' families to navigate a red-tape maze to find answers to even their simplest questions.

Just as we expect a coordinated emergency response to a flood or tornado, we need to ensure that victims, their families and college communities are able to receive similar assistance in the wake of these personal disasters.

Reflecting on the loss of his own son, the well-known minister the Rev. William Sloan Coffin once said, "When parents die, they take with them a portion of the past. But when children die, they take away the future as well." As we mourn those lost at Virginia Tech, NIU and other schools across the country, we must learn from these incidents, work to avoid them and improve our response when they do occur.

Dick Durbin, a Democrat, is a U.S. senator from Illinois.

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Dick Durbin




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Dick Durbin, “On-campus mental illness issues unique,” The April 16 Archive, accessed July 16, 2024, https://april16archive.org/items/show/2135.