Justin Peligri: How to reexamine mental health at GW

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Justin Peligri

Twenty-eight people were killed Dec. 14 in Newtown, Conn. Four of them were seven years old, and 16 were six. And following the shooting, more than 800 people have been killed by guns as of Jan. 9, according to Slate’s gun death tally.

The massacre in Newtown is one of a series of tragedies that has left every American asking: “What can we do to make sure this never happens again?”

In December, University President Steven Knapp joined 255 other college presidents by signing a written appeal from Emerson College President Lee Pelton, encouraging President Barack Obama to direct “urgent attention” to instituting stricter gun control.

I agree with Knapp: Universities have a role to play in the ongoing gun control debate. But signing a letter to Obama is only a formality.

There’s a part of this debate in which colleges in particular have a more pressing responsibility: mental health. It’s a crucial topic that has hardly been broached in the post-Newtown political drama. And it was the subject of only one brief paragraph in the letter Knapp signed.

Many of the recent mass shootings – including the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., last summer and the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre – involved college-aged killers.

Adam Lanza, the shooter in Newtown, had no visible brain deformities, according to the autopsy report. But days before the killings, friends of Lanza’s mother – who was among the 28 victims that day – told CNN that she was concerned about her son’s well-being. Mental health, especially for the college-aged, should be a facet of the national debate, and it’s a situation in which college communities have a stake.

To promote a culture of positive mental health on campus, the University should mandate that all professors and student leaders complete mental health awareness training that instructs how to recognize and appropriately deal with emotional instability.

Students’ positive perceptions of their own mental health have sharply declined: The percentage of students who considered themselves as having “above average” mental health declined by 3.4 percentage points in one year alone, according to a 2010 study from the Higher Education Research Institute.

The study also shows that an increasing number of students are seeking counseling services.

While the University Counseling Center offers six free sessions, the promotion of positive mental health should not be a task that is relegated exclusively to the UCC.

Oftentimes, professors are the greatest link students have to this institution. They are educators first, but they should also serve as lines of support, recognizing and addressing red flags for depression and anxiety, like sudden drops in academic performance or lack of attendance.

New faculty participate in a day-long orientation on policies. But a course that equips professors and student leaders with the skills to help spot students who need help and provide them with some preliminary assistance would be invaluable. At a school where there are more than 20,000 students, asking for help can be a daunting task.

The good news is that the Mental Health Association, which has offices in Maryland and the District, already offers an information session that GW could use as a model. Their 12-hour intensive program teaches how to “assess risk of suicide or harm,” “listen non-judgmentally” and “encourage self-help and other support strategies,” according to the organization’s website. The community could benefit if employees were trained to sharpen those skills.

Building a course will demonstrate that the health of students is worth the University’s investment. And in an era where gun violence is all too prevalent, working to promote positive mental health is an attainable step in the right direction.

“Behavioral health is in the back-seat – way in the back. It’s in the trunk,” Olga Price, associate professor in the School of Public Health and Health Services told me about the stigma surrounding mental health. “I think people are very reluctant to talk about their concerns and to seek support.”

Price, who is also the director of GW’s Center for Health and Healthcare in Schools, added that when it comes to a debate about how to reduce gun violence, the discussion should not revolve only around working to keep guns away from the mentally ill.

Only about 4 percent of violence in this country is conducted by those who are mentally ill, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry.

But The New York Times wrote on Dec. 17: “If we really want to stop young men like [Lanza] from becoming mass murderers, and prevent the small amount of violence attributable to mental illness, we should invest our resources in better screening for, and treatment of, psychiatric illness in young people.”

We cannot afford to be negligent when it comes to promoting positive mental health on campus. Lives are at stake, and the clock is ticking.

Justin Peligri, a sophomore majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.

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