Police Interview Newsletter
Seeing and Hearing Mental Illness
on Campus

Seeing and Hearing Mental Illness on Campus
Volume 6, Issue 2
March-April, 2007




     Recent events at Virginia Tech have painfully reminded us that it is often teachers, fellow students, roommates, and police officers that first observe deviant behavior in the young adult population.

     There is a huge gap, of course, between observing what appears to be odd and unusual in another person's behavior and deciding if some action or intervention is necessary. These kinds of decisions are generally left to the experts - mental health or law enforcement.

     In addition, there appears to be a tendency on the part of the average person to deny, or not want to believe, that an acquaintance or fellow student may be violent or suffering with a serious mental illness. And, even if he/she does appear to be mentally disturbed, "Is it really my responsibility to do something with the information?" "Does it make any sense for me to get involved?" We too often choose to not go out of our way to inquire further or to offer help.

     Young Adult Warning Signs of Serious Mental Problems might include:

1. Delusions or Hallucinations

If a student is literally talking "crazy" or seeing/hearing things that are clearly not real, he needs immediate help.

2. Disorganized speech

Our thoughts and speech normally follow at least a semi-logical path that can be understood by others. When thoughts become extremely disjointed, free associative in nature, and full of nonsequiturs - a serious thought disorder may be present. It is clearly a serious warning sign of maladjustment.

3. Paranoid ideas

To suspiciously believe that others are persecuting you or plotting against you (without facts to support it) is paranoid. Likewise, believing that one is Jesus Christ, or some special agent of God -charged with eradicating evil people in the community - signals psychotic thinking.

4. Social Isolation

When a young adult chronically isolates himself and refuses/rejects interpersonal contact, there is serious cause for concern. Severe depression and/or seriously distorted thinking are likely.

5. Severe Depression

Students displaying suicidal talk, uncontrollable crying spells, refusal to attend classes, poor appetite or weight loss, and disturbed sleep patterns require immediate help.

6. Living Alternative Realities or A Make-Believe Life

When young adults experience too much pain or failure in the real world, they sometimes create vivid fantasy lives - centering around power, fame, or a love relationship with an unattainable "boyfriend" or "girlfriend". At such times, the person becomes obsessed with aspects of this alternative reality and ignores important elements of the real world.

7. Violent References or Direct Threats to Harm Someone

Mental illness and violent acting out are often telegraphed early in the student's speech and/or writings of death and revenge. Personal journals, letters, and classroom writing assignments often contain violent references. Since the Columbine shootings several years ago, teachers and school administrators have learned to take threats to harm others (direct or indirect) very seriously.

8. Access To or Fascination with Weapons

Any time that a student has a weapon in his possession on campus, there is great cause for concern. In combination with any of the other risk factors, a weapon (especially a gun) presents an immediate threat and needs to be reported. An obsession with weapons can signal maladjustment in some students.

9. Deterioration in Appearance and Self-Care

Emotionally healthy people bathe, groom themselves, and attend to personal hygiene on a regular daily basis. When a student starts looking disheveled, unclean, and dressed in dirty clothing, it may be an indication of mental maladjustment. This poor degree of self-care goes far beyond the relaxed, often sloppy way that students sometimes dress in high school and college.

10. Excessive Daily Use of Alcohol and/or Drugs

Drinking and drug use have played a part in student life in high school and college for many years. Much of it appears to be experimental and curiosity-based, and not necessarily severely harmful. However, when drug or alcohol misuse occurs on a daily basis - or on an episodic basis to the extreme - it may be serving to mask a serious underlying problem. In my experience, I find that even the students themselves can accurately identify who among them is abusing alcohol and drugs in a self-destructive fashion.

11. Violent or Aggressive Behavior

Loss of temper on a daily basis, frequent physical fighting, vandalism, and a history of hurting other people or animals are serious warning signs of emotional disturbance and/or potentially violent acting out on campus.

General Guideline: The presence of any of the 11 warning signs and symptoms listed above represent cause for serious concern.

What Can Students Do When They Observe Deviant Behavior?

  1. If the person-of-concern is a friend or close associate, consider speaking to him directly and expressing your concerns. Encourage seeking help, if indicated. Offer to assist the person in finding the help if he/she is receptive. Don't give up if the person dismisses your concern and you have valid reasons to be worried! Make a follow-up plan to speak with someone else that may be in a position to help.

  2. Check out your impressions and concerns with someone else who may have had occasion to observe similar behaviors in this individual. Share impressions/concerns for the purpose of deciding what steps if any to take.

  3. Consider informing an adult who may be in a position to help. On campus, a teacher or professor, guidance counselor or student counseling center therapist, Dean of Students, resident hall advisor, or law enforcement officer should be high on the list of those you may want to seek out.

  4. Follow-up with the person-of-concern, the professional, and/or a responsible person in charge to make sure that some action has been taken. Many of these kinds of situations require an intervention plan. People can drop the ball or fail to follow through on conveying important information to others. Don't allow that to happen!

"Psychology Today" Editor Offers Perspective

     In his April 24, 2007 email newsletter entitled "Spotlight on a Troubled Mind" Hara Estroff Marano, Editor at Large with Psychology Today Magazine, shared the following thoughts regarding the recent mass shootings at VA TECH:

     "There's lots to debate and discuss about this sorry episode. Did the university act responsibly between the first and second attacks? Was it reasonable for the university administration to assume that the killer had left the campus--or to assume anything until the smoking gun was in custody? Was the administration correct to put all their eggs of hunch into one basket of suspect based on the most tenuous of links? Despite abundant signs of a troubled mind, how does anyone know whether or when a disturbed person intends harm or is going to snap? Where does the college community's responsibility begin and end for the mental health of its students? There are no clear answers, debate on these issues is healthy, even after the fact. I, for one, would not want to see colleges adopting policies to mandate counseling for every student who, say, displays a dark imagination or is sullen in class and out." (p.1)

     "Yet, as I wrote for Psychology Today five years ago, campus counseling centers, once backwaters of the mental health system, are now its new front line. The stark fact is that colleges are not sanctuaries. They now enroll more students with more extreme behavior problems than ever before. And it's getting worse every year. As more young people go to college, college resembles more and more the world outside it. It is, however, instructive to remember that colleges are in some ways still highly protective environments: contrary to popular thinking, the suicide rate among college students is roughly half that of same-age peers in the community. Maybe it's the constant contact with others that dorm living and classes guarantee, or perhaps it's the orientation to the future, but something in the college environment saves lives." (p.1-2)

     Interested readers can get copies of "Warning Signs", a pamphlet published by the APA to educate themselves on recognizing the warning signs of violence in others. Go to the American Psychological Association web site at www.helping.apa.org or phone 1-800-268-0078 for your copy.

     Educators, school administrators, and police officers would do well to familiarize themselves with these warning signs of violence in our young adults.


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