While the debate over guns and gun control has taken center stage on ScienceBlogs, ultimately there’s a human pulling the trigger. The New York Times has an interesting article about the problems getting troubled students to seek help before they harm themselves or others. The facts about college suicide are startlingly grim:
While shootings like the one at Virginia Tech are extremely rare, suicides, threats and serious mental-health problems are not. Last year, the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment, covering nearly 95,000 students at 117 campuses, found that 9 percent of students had seriously considered suicide in the previous year, and 1 in 100 had attempted it.
If their sample is accurate, that means that about 170,000 of the 17 million students enrolled in college or graduate school in the U.S. attempt suicide each year, and nine times that number consider suicide. Obviously, all these students need psychological or psychiatric help, but how do you determine which of them need to be removed from the classroom and/or forced into treatment? You certainly can’t justify removing 1.5 million students on the chance of stopping one Cho Seung-Hui.
NPR’s “Here and Now” had an interview with threat assessment expert Paul Dillon yesterday, where he explained how the University of Maryland system determined which students were serious threats to themselves or others.
Dillon explained that the vast majority of cases are only dangerous to themselves (this certainly corresponds with my own college experience: several students committed suicide, but nobody murdered anyone). Students can be referred to the counseling center, but in order to force them into treatment, direct threats must have been made. Maryland used a computer database to track troubled individuals and identify their relative levels of risk. In one case, they were able to take swift action when a student who had been expelled from school later threatened to return and physically harm a professor. The man was found to have a stockpile of illegal weapons; in this case the result was a conviction and a crisis averted.
But in many other cases, there simply isn’t enough evidence to remove someone from campus — and clearly, with as many 1.5 million students considering suicide each year, in nearly every case it would be wrong to do so. The Times article and NPR report offer additional insight into the extent of the problem.