Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Community Colleges and Mentally Ill Students

Finally, I'm seeing some discussion of the fact that Jared Loughner was mentally ill. He likely was not influenced by the Tea Party or any other living Republicans, and as I've said before, I doubt that he was influenced by his reading choices either. I've had students who were mentally ill and students who were mentally stable--very few of them read anything beyond text messages.

Diane Rehm did a very good show yesterday on these issues, but I'm still intrigued by some of the comments in other various media outlets. I'm fascinated by how many people who assume that Loughner's community college had some mental health resources, places where he could have gone to get care. Are you kidding me? One of the reasons that community colleges are so inexpensive is the lack of these kind of services.

In fact, I've taught in a wide variety of settings, and only the largest universities have mental health services--and even then, those centers are often staffed by grad students. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but let's not kid ourselves about the level of care available. When I was in grad school, we could go to the campus service to talk about our anxieties and depression, but if we suffered severe illness, such as schizophrenia, I'm not sure how the mental health service would have handled that.

At the community colleges where I've worked, a far more useful social service would have been a day care center that was open during the entire time the college offered classes. But again, let's be honest with each other. Adding that very valuable service would likely increase the cost for students and perhaps exclude the single parents who most need training and education.

You might ask why there's not more state funding. Legislators have liked community colleges because they don't cost as much to run as the larger universities. And now, there's not much funding for anyone, no matter how cheaply they can provide education.

I've also heard commentators asking why Loughner's teachers didn't do more. But what would you have them do? Some commentators say that teachers should have alerted someone, but from what I can tell, they did--numerous times. Often when teachers report odd behavior, there's not much the school can do. And the ADA makes the situation more tricky than it once was.

On most college campuses, adolescents comprise the majority of students. It's hard to distinguish mental illness from typical adolescent behavior. I've had many students where I wondered if they needed medical intervention or just the patience required for them to outgrow whatever phase they were in. And even had I, or the administration, or the parents, or the police decided that a student needed medical intervention, it can be quite impossible to force the mentally ill to seek treatment. And again, the discussion circles back to money. Who will pay for the treatment, especially in these economic hard times when local, state, and federal governments are making tough choices?

But most heartbreaking to me is the accusation that the parents should have done more. Again, what could they have done? The child was not a minor--and as one of the guests on the Diane Rehm show points out, even parents of minor children don't have many options. And if there's no health insurance, there are even fewer options.

I have no answers. But I'm glad that we seem to be moving beyond the rather simplistic discussion of heated political rhetoric as the cause of this young man's breakdown.


Kathleen said...

Thanks for your insights on community college realities. I heard the interview with a teacher who did have him removed from a classroom at Pima, and I thought that was a responsible thing to do. From what you say, there wasn't much else the community college could provide after that, which is indeed a shame. I was lucky to be able to refer students to good resources where I've taught. Campus violence has already begun to change security, a sad but necessary reality, and I've heard many news stories about the great numbers of students struggling with various disorders in college, so I do hope all this is slowly adding up to good and real change and help.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thank you, thank you, Kristin. I work at a large-ish cc, around 11,000 students and still growing. We have one counselor, who is also a licensed social worker. As you can imagine, she is overwhelmed. I often give students her contact information if I suspect of know of domestic violence, sudden homelessness, child custody issues, and yes, sometimes b/c I'm uncertain about mental stability. Maybe 1 in 4 make an appt with her. This is also complicated b/c I cannot initiate the contact. The student must first come to me (or answer a "how are you doing?" with something explicit).

Your point about daycare is HUGE!

We might not have answers, but having the discussion is a beginning.

Michael said...


Thank you for a very useful and informative post.

Because of the work I do (assist in the process of involuntary commitment) I can tell you that many if not all states are ill prepared to provide the much needed resources to help such people even aside from the constraints that you have mentioned in community colleges.

Even when court ordered for a 21 day commitment because a person is deemed to be potentially harmful to themselves or others, in my own community there are so few beds available in facilities that many are discharged before the 21 day period is up. This is permissible because the court considers a 21 day order to be a maximum period of authority a hospital has to maintain that person against their will and not a mandated period of time. As such, hospitals selectively discharge more stable patients early. A subjective decision at best, which assumes the patient will continue to follow the regimen of prescribed medication therapy.

There have been efforts made to orchestrate some degree of parity between available benefits for mental health care and other health care by health care providers but even the best of private health care insurance often is inadequate.

There needs to be a national discussion on mental health care services, especially in light of what surely will be efforts to eliminate or reduce funds by both federal and state governments for a whole host of government services.

Last, I’d like to stress a little different perspective on the heated political rhetoric. There is no question that such political discourse has reached an unacceptable level. In this particular case we cannot know that for example that anything attributable to any of the fringe and over the top statements lead to this outcome, but nether can we discount a part it might have played. It is known that Jared Loughner did communicate with Congresswoman Giffords and had previously attended a public forum conducted by the Congresswoman. We also know that writing was found in Loughner’s home with Giffords’ name and the word “assassinate” written by it. There is clear evidence that Loughner gave forethought to what he was doing and that this was not a man who snapped in a moment and went crazy shooting people. Planning went into what he was doing.

There are many discussions we as a nation need to be having and I think neither of these is undeserving of out attention as is the question of why (military and police excluded) do we need to be able to walk into a Wal-Mart and purchase an extended clip that holds 31 rounds of ammunition for a automatic or simi-automatic weapon.

Karen J. Weyant said...

Thanks so much for this posting. I agree -- I am amazed at the number of people who do believe that community colleges have all this extra funding. In the state of New York, we have been cut year after year in spite of the fact that our numbers are growing. I'm also amazed about the number of people who believe that because Obama is behind community colleges, that we are seeing all this extra "money." At JCC, we actually had a daycare center -- that was a great perk for our students -- we lost our daycare center two years ago because of budget cuts.

Sandy -- I can't believe you only have one full time counselor for 11,0000 students! We have four full-time counselors for 4,000 students and they are crazy busy!

Kristin said...

Thank you all for reading and commenting and having the kind of conversation that I feel we should be having at a larger level. Maybe we will . . . maybe . . . a girl must continue to dream!