A Common Sense 10-Point Plan to Enhance Safety on College Campuses
By David Fassler, M.D.
Once again, our nation is coping with the aftermath of violence and the senseless loss of life on a college campus. The causes behind such incidents are complex, and there are clearly no simple answers or magic solutions. However, there are some common sense steps that colleges can take to help keep students and faculty safe, and to reduce the risk of future tragedies. Such steps include:
- Identify students with problems. Most young people who become violent in a college setting have a long history of emotional and behavioral difficulties. In many cases, signs and symptoms of trouble have existed for years. We know a lot about the early warning signs and situational risk factors which can lead to violent behavior. They include:
- Intense anger
- Drug or alcohol abuse
- Preoccupation with violent or morbid themes or fantasies
- Social isolation
- Family problems
- Low self esteem
- Suicidal thoughts, statements, or actions
- History of abuse or neglect
- Excessive interest in weapons or explosives
- Recent loss, disappointment or rejection
- Enhance access to mental health care. Colleges should make it as easy as possible for students to receive comprehensive mental health services without long waits or financial barriers. Such services must be adequately staffed and funded, with appropriate access to the full range of mental health professionals. College counseling programs should also be reintegrated into student health services to enhance coordination and communication.
- Require students to have health insurance. All colleges should require students to maintain adequate and appropriate health insurance coverage. They should also ensure that such policies include full parity for the treatment of psychiatric and substance use disorders.
- Train faculty and resident advisers to recognize warning signs. Encourage outreach to help identify students who may be having difficulties. Consider developing an internal task force to monitor and support students who may be at particular risk.
- Improve awareness and communication. Educate students about the signs and symptoms of mental illness, and encourage them to seek help when needed. Teach students to reach out and ask for help when their friends, roommates, or acquaintances are having problems. As we’ve learned, young people will often tell someone before attempting suicide or engaging in violent or dangerous behavior. When students hear such boasts, threats, or warnings, they need to tell a faculty member, mental health professional, or school administrator. They should not be put in the position of deciding whether the threat is “serious” or not.
- Develop and disseminate non-discriminatory policies to ensure student safety. All schools should have a consistent policy regarding actions which will be taken if and when a student is judged to a danger to themselves or others. Such policies should address issues including communication with parents, faculty, and health care professionals. They must be designed in a manner which does not discriminate against people with mental illness or substance use disorders, and which does not discourage people from or punish people for seeking appropriate treatment, assistance, or support. All such policies should be clearly explained to students and parents prior to matriculation.
- Enhance the role of faculty advisors. Every student should have a faculty advisor who meets with them on a regular basis and who helps monitor their social and emotional adjustment, development, and functioning, as well as their academic performance. Advisors should have access to clinical and administrative back up and consultation to help address questions or concerns about specific students.
- Develop a campus-wide warning system. All colleges should have an appropriate and effective warning system to quickly alert students, faculty, staff, and visitors to emergency situations.
- Expand access to drug and alcohol treatment. Colleges should intensify efforts to address the problem of drug and alcohol abuse on campus. We need to identify students with problems as early as possible, and make sure they get the help they need. Colleges also need to strictly enforce laws concerning the purchase or possession of alcohol by minors.
- Develop peer support programs. Students benefit from the opportunity to spend time in a group talking in a preventative manner with other young people about their thoughts, feelings and frustrations. Many students feel isolated, alone, and different. They may think they are the only ones with problems. Peer support groups provide an opportunity to learn that others are dealing with similar issues and experiences. Such groups can also serve as another early warning system for identifying students who are particularly vulnerable, fragile or troubled.
Individually, none of the above suggestions will solve the problem of violence on college campuses. But collectively, they would represent a significant shift in the philosophy and orientation of our educational system. Our campuses are full of troubled kids. By working together, parents, faculty members, administrators, and communities can develop effective strategies to identify young people who need help, and intervene as early as possible. Such an approach would ultimately lead to safer colleges and a better educational experience for our young people.
Dr. Fassler is a Board Certified Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist practicing in Burlington, Vermont. He is a Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. In addition, Dr. Fassler is a Trustee of the American Psychiatric Association (www.psych.org), a Fellow of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (www.aacap.org), and a member of the Board of Mental Health America (www.mentalhealthamerica.net).