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College counselors often limited on how to help

Thu., April 19, 2007

CHICAGO – As new details emerged Wednesday about the alarming behavior of the student behind the Virginia Tech massacre, college mental health experts said they will re-examine ways to help disturbed students and protect those around them.

Classmates described gunman Cho Seung-Hui, who killed 32 people before killing himself, as sullen and withdrawn. A professor, concerned by Cho’s writings, had referred him to counseling. In 2005, a magistrate ordered him to a psychiatric hospital because of concerns he was suicidal.

Combined, the warning signs point to something being terribly wrong. But college counselors – who every year see more students suffering from depression, anxiety and stress – say it’s not that simple.

College officials don’t always share information with one another because of confidentiality concerns or simply poor communication, and counseling centers may be so overwhelmed that students have to put their names on a waiting list before they’re seen. Universities generally don’t have psychiatrists on hand who specialize in detecting potential criminal behavior, nor do they have in-patient facilities or round-the-clock counselors.

Looking at the tragedy in Virginia, David Hayes, a clinical psychologist and director of the psychology training program at Louisiana State University’s student health center, gave a succinct assessment: “Every university in the country knows that could have been them.”

He said people at Virginia Tech seemed to notice, from Cho’s odd and detached behavior, that there was reason to be concerned.

But he questions whether the counseling center at the university – or at any university for that matter – would have been able to properly diagnose and treat Cho, a 23-year-old senior.

“Mental health centers at universities are trained to deal with the normal problems of living – depression, anxiety,” Hayes said. “I just feel any university counseling center would probably get a referral like this and want to help and do what they could. But they’d be so outmatched.”

College mental health experts predict that after the horror at Virginia Tech, some colleges may refer their more severe cases to off-campus psychiatric treatment facilities. Other campuses may mandate counseling, rather than recommend it. And some may lift limits on the number of therapy sessions a student can receive.


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