UAF’s evolving mental health response

By Andrew Sheeler
Sun Star Reporter

Before April of 2007, colleges and universities across the country were unprepared for how to respond to a student like Seung-Hui Cho, a senior at Virginia Tech. After Cho went on a shooting rampage that took over 30 lives, Virginia Tech and schools across the country reconsidered how to deal with students whose mental health problems made them a threat to both themselves and their peers. When Pima Community College in Tuscon, Ariz. received numerous reports from concerned students and teachers about a student named Jared Loughner, they responded by suspending him indefinitely and barring him from campus.

Loughner later went on a shooting rampage that left six dead and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords seriously wounded.

Following Loughner’s shooting spree, colleges across the country are once more evaluating how to deal with students with mental health problems. The North Carolina State Board of Community Colleges amended their policy to allow state colleges to refuse admission to prospective students who present “an articulable, imminent and significant threat,” according to the Charlotte Observer.

UAF does not have a formal response to students who, like Loughner and Cho, could pose a potential threat to their classmates and teachers. Instead, they have formed an informal Behavioral Intervention Team (BIT) that deals with this issue on a case-by-case basis. The team consists of Sean McGee, UAF Chief of Police; Don Foley, Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Life; Sharon Hollensbe, Associate Director for Counseling Services at the Health Center; and Kevin Huddy, Director of Residence Life.

Chief McGee said that the members of BIT coordinate and share information where they can regarding students of concern. There are limits though. Confidentiality laws, especially regarding medical privacy, can prevent BIT members from discussing students’ mental health status. Chief McGee said that as the apparent threat a student poses goes up, the level of privacy restriction goes down. In the event that a student needs to be involuntarily committed, the UAF police are called to commit them. McGee said that he has involuntarily committed students in the past, but that “every effort is made to make this a voluntary commitment.”

Dr. BJ Aldrich, Director of the Health Center, echoed that sentiment.

“We try and get them to commit themselves for further evaluation,” Aldrich said. However, getting psychiatric help in Fairbanks can be a challenge for students, especially students of limited means. Aldrich said that while she and the medical providers at the Health Center can and do prescribe psychiatric medication, the counselors on staff there cannot. So students needing counseling as well as treatment are forced to venture off campus. There are only a handful of private practice psychiatrists in Fairbanks, and their prices and insurance policies vary. Low-income students can go to the Fairbanks Community Behavioral Health Center, but the waitlist to be seen can sometimes be months unless the need is urgent. Aldrich said that a further complication is the imperfect ability to diagnose a student as a danger to themselves or others. “When someone is acting out, you can’t always commit them,” Aldrich said.

Foley, with Student Life, is often the one on the front lines when students are having problems. He said that it is rare for a student to self-report a serious mental illness. There are “maybe one or two a year,” Foley said. He said that more often, he gets reports from concerned friends, students or faculty.

Foley said that he and the other members of the BIT are considering whether or not to formalize the reporting process. Foley is concerned that doing so could potentially turn some people off from otherwise voicing their concerns.

“What is going to make people more comfortable reporting something that is concerning,” Foley said. The BIT plans to make a decision on formalization later this year.

Foley said that there is a “learning curve for all of us” when it comes to figuring out how to deal with student mental health. He said that UAF is a big, diverse campus. “We have this interesting mix of everything from welding to astrophysics [students].”

Students can speak with counselors at the Center for Health and Counseling, Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Center can be reached at 474-7043. For 24-hour emergency psychiatric service, please call the Fairbanks Community Behavioral Health Clinic at 452-1575.

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