A Time To Grieve and Heal - Higher Education


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A Time To Grieve and Heal

by Michelle J. Nealy

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Today marks the one-year anniversary of the most deadly and violent school shooting in American history. It was April 16, 2007, just after 7 a.m., when Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University student Seung-Hui Cho killed two other students in a campus dormitory. By the day’s end, Cho would claim 33 lives, including his own.

Since the tragic event, much has been learned and put into practice in the areas of campus safety and mental health.

University officials across the country have become increasingly involved in the application of mental health treatment. Faculty, administrators and residence life coordinators are looking more assertively for signs and reporting incidents with greater frequency.

Since the Virginia Tech shootings, nearly nine out of 10 respondents to a recent survey indicated that their college or university had conducted a comprehensive review of campus safety and security, and a similar proportion indicated that changes had been made to policies, procedures or security systems as a result of the tragedy, according to the Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC).

Cho’s ominous behavior and his writings worried professors, administrators and campus police. According to reports by Virginia Tech, during a commitment hearing Cho was found to be potentially dangerous. An off-campus psychiatrist sent him back to the school for outpatient treatment. It is alleged that Cho never completed his outpatient treatment.

“This was an individual who was troubled and threatening,” said Dr. Susan Silk, a coordinator for the American Psychological Association’s Disaster Response Network. “If there is a mandatory referral for outpatient monitoring, we have to make sure that it is implemented.”

In a year’s time, university officials at Virginia Tech have worked tirelessly to extend the reach of their mental health capabilities. The university added five new positions including a mental health case manager to guarantee that every case receives proper attention.

“One of the difficulties of our situation was [tracking.] You need to track students to ensure that students who need help get help. Both the Dean of Students Office and the counseling center now have case management,” said Larry Hincker, associate vice president of university relations.

While Virginia Tech continues to make the necessary adjustments, other institutions struggle to secure mental health resources. According to a survey conducted last fall by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, researchers found that colleges on average have just one counseling staffer for every 1,941 students.

Similar incidents at Delaware State University, where a freshman shot and wounded two other students on campus, and more recently at Northern Illinois University, where Stephen Kazmierczak opened fire in a lecture hall at Northern Illinois University, killing five students and wounding 16 before killing himself, have caused university officials nationwide to enhance their mental health competency through cross campus communication.

A peril to administering effective mental health services is the lack of communication across departments, says Silk, noting that the most troubled students may never voluntarily visit the student health center.

“Communication across all entities is the key to a proactive approach. Campus safety, public health, faculty and the student body needs to communicate. If campus safety notices an individual of concern, the individual should be reported to the Dean of Students [and] the other entities,” Silk says.

From candle light vigils and moments of silence to the ringing of bells, colleges across the county today will commemorate the massacre on the campus of Virginia Tech.

“When you endure a tragedy the scale and the scope that Virginia Tech did and has, the entire community participates in a collective grieving process. This kind of collective grief is a force that helps you get to the healing process. In order to heal, you must first grieve,” Hincker says.

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