How Universities Can Help Mentally Ill Students

Michele Norris talks with Dr. Russ Federman, director of counseling at the University of Virginia. He'll talk about how universities can deal with students that exhibit mental health problems.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Seung-hui Cho's history of mental problems has stoked an ongoing debate on college and university campuses. What should a school do when there are warning signs that a student might want to hurt himself or others? When do administrators have a responsibility to act?

Dr. Russ Federman is director of counseling and psychological services at the University of Virginia, another of the state's big schools.

Dr. RUSS FEDERMAN (Director, Counseling and Psychological Services, University of Virginia): If and when students on our campus are disturbed and brought to our attention, we do everything we can. It isn't that there's no response. We really go to great measures to try to get them help.

The problem is when they refuse. That is the problem. And usually that's when we are convening groups of other professionals and administrators, and essentially doing interdisciplinary case management to try to decide what would be the best course of action.

NORRIS: If a student refuses to get help, even if they've been referred for counseling, how do you make sure that they do get help? How do you say get help or else?

Dr. FEDERMAN: We can't.

NORRIS: Nothing you can do.

Dr. FEDERMAN: Unless...

NORRIS: No other way to apply pressure. You - can you bring in the parents? Can you turn to someone else, the dean, the chairman of the department that they're - where they're major is?

Dr. FEDERMAN: Again, we - if they have been disruptive and they are in violation of codes of conduct, then the dean's office absolutely becomes involved. And the dean's office can bring pressure to bear upon them to receive help.

If a student presents enough kind of symptomatic constellation of - or rather enough of a constellation of symptoms that we are highly worried about them. And if the dean feels that psychological assessment may be absolutely necessary, they may go forward with an interim suspension, and request that the student be assessed by us.

And that would occur. But even then, all we can do is assess and provide recommendation to the dean's office. Beyond that, they are still a free individual, able to kind of conduct their lives on a day-to-day basis as they choose.

NORRIS: Now I know that we are on the outside looking in in terms of what happened at Virginia Tech, but it's been reported that some of his professors, his instructors, did raise concerns about his writing. In at least one case, a professor said students stopped showing up for class because they were uncomfortable around him. There was one professor, the poet Nikki Giovanni said that she had had - actually had him escorted from class at one point. If we look at this...

Dr. FEDERMAN: Right.

NORRIS: ...in retrospect, what's the lesson there, and how to handle a situation like that?

Dr. FEDERMAN: The lesson is that we pay closer attention to student behavior. And the lesson is that we get as much involved as we can, at the same time being mindful of students' rights. And that leaves us with a gray area. And let me comment on the gray area, Michele. I think we would like to think that violence and tragedy is avoidable. We would like to think that we get up each day and we go out into the world and we live - or we experience a day of safety and relative stability.

And if things go haywire, we'd like to find ways of preventing that in the future - such that if we can prevent it in the future, we can feel less anxious about life. But I think the reality is that human behavior is not always predictable. And the ways in which we can control individual's behaviors when they have their own legal rights as adults is limited.

I think a clear example is if an individual is frightened by someone else, and they go to the police, and they say I need protection. The police often says, has this person injured you? And unless they have, there's little the police can do.

And I think the same holds true on university campuses. Unless someone violates codes of conduct, just the fact that they have a mental disorder in itself does not mean we can take control of their lives. It does mean that we can do everything we can to get involved, but they still have individual rights and we need to be mindful of that.

NORRIS: Dr. Federman, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Dr. FEDERMAN: You're welcome. I appreciate it.

NORRIS: That was Dr. Russ Federman. He is the director of counseling and psychological services at the University of Virginia.

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