Some thoughts on the tradgedy at University of Maryland, and on the Baltimore Sun

“All mental illnesses are not the same. They vary in intensity and duration of symptoms. Some sufferers will show periods of lucidity that can be confusing even to experts. Not all chronic sufferers from mental illness will have an acute psychotic breakdown”

This passage from an editorial in the Baltimore Sun prompted me to write this post today.  It seems to me that this is entirely true.  I don’t agree 100% with the article after this statement (it’s in the early stages of the letter).  But I do agree that attempting to define “mental illness” with some set of constant terms is impossible.

Before I get to far, I wanted to express my sadness over the shootings.  I am sad for the victims, of course, but also for the shooter, reportedly a grad student.  School shootings are always terrible, and usually make the population think.  This one in particular seems not to have, much.  Maybe it’s because we’ve had so many shootings at schools in the past 6 months.  Again, I am saddened by this

Back to the letter to the editor.  It’s actually written in response to this article initially written and posted on February 13th.  In it the author paints a picture where students would help identify students having a breakdown, and steer them towards treatment.

“The deaths of Mr. Green and his roommate, along with the wounding of another student, demonstrate the need for colleges to help faculty and students become more aware of potential mental health problems they observe. Such discussions should occur early on, during orientation week for incoming students, for instance. Being able to identify peers who are psychologically distressed and recognize the changes in behavior that signal problems would allow students to react more appropriately and be more in control of situations that may arise.”

Pipe dream.  As well intended as this approach would be it would be a disaster.  College students aren’t qualified or capable of identifying the “psychologically distresses” from among their peer group.  In fact, the author lists a few reasons why it wouldn’t work in their own editorial.

Listen, people:  college’s have a tough time with this subject.  Most now have student aid centers where counselling is available, some can even write prescriptions.  When I was a college student in the mid 1990’s, the student health center was there and willing to do what if could – but again, all mental illnesses are not the same.  Students who are brave enough, or willing enough, to go get help can get some measure of help.  But we have to remember the issues new college students face when they enter the campus community.  Even the “well adjusted” can have some issues with pressure, new social scenery, new peer groups, and then throw in pressures from the actual schoolwork.  It can be daunting.

Picture how daunting it can be if you know something isn’t quite right in your head.  Imagine, if you can, the fear involved in having a mental illness, needing medication or therapy, and having to tell friends.  It can be hard.  Again, this is in the case of a student who knows their situation already.  Never mind the slow decent into madness and paranoia that can happen to a student over a period of years as their workload increases, and their focus decreases.  I’ve never been a grad student, but I can imagine, and have been told, that the pressure is immense.  Everything you are doing, 25×7 is all about that grad work.  There often is nothing else.

To me, the key to slowing our rate of school violence (not just shootings, but suicides, beatings, etc) would be to do one simple thing:  reduce the amount of pressure we put on students, and on people as a whole.  I was chatting back and forth with a friend as I was writing this, and he pointed that out:  we place so much pressure on our students, all in the name of an often inferior education.  There’s financial pressures from college, social pressures, as well as obvious academic ones.  I’m no genius here, but I would think that something could be done to lower the pressure related to being a college student, right?

I know what you are thinking:  how does lowering pressure on students lower the likelihood of mental illness?  It might not lower the likelihood of someone getting sick, but it would alleviate some of the outside factors that make being mentally ill tough universally.  I know mental illnesses are not all the same (as stated above), but there are some things that everyone would benefit from.

Imagine if you could somehow create a college atmosphere where students had less worries, not more?  What if college students were relaxed people, as opposed to the tightly would bunches of hormones they generally are now?

One last thought on University of Maryland (and others, surely), and what they are dealing with in this time and place:  Please be very careful how you proceed from here.  I completely agree that some things need to be done, and many things could be changed, in the light of a school shooting.  In fact, University President Wallace Loe said as much:

“there are lessons to be learned, policy questions to be discussed, changes to be made” – University of Md. President Wallace Loe, February 12th, 2013

I would encourage the U of M community to address their concerns, but to work hard to address them in a manner that does not further ostracize the mentally ill community on your campus and in your town.  It does no one any good if you further push away a group of people who merely need help.  Not every mentally ill person is a violent sociopath in waiting.  As I’ve mentioned (probably harped on) before, we’re not all bad people, and most of us just want to go about our days, just like you.  If you begin to place even more pressure on a mentally ill student to conform, or try to force someone to get help who doesn’t want it yet, you can easily push them to hurt themselves.  That is a true tragedy as well.  Trust me, I know.

Another quick reminder that seems timely: According to the NIMH, the 18-25 age bracket is the most affected by mental illness.  Which is also the age we all get sent off to college.  I’m not saying it’s definitely linked – I’m not qualified to do that.  I’m just saying that the age bracket that colleges have to work with is one that is susceptible to a lot of things, and serious mental illness seems to be one of them. (Thanks again to the BBR&F for the link!)

As my ramble comes to a close, I wanted to stress/repeat this:

  • I am truly saddened by the loss at College Park
  • Mental illness does not fit into a nice little box.  They are all a bit different, just like the patients.
  • Asking college students to identify the mentally ill amongst them is a really, really bad idea.  Just look at any historical examples of a witch hunt for reference.
  • Please be sure not to demonize all of the mentally ill over the actions of a few sad individuals.  That doesn’t help solve any problems – it just makes them worse.

Thanks to Skylar for chatting with me through this.  Great insight, man.