By Pam G. Dempsey/CU-CitizenAccess
In the wake of Sandy Hook and other school shootings of recent years, gun control advocates – and some politicians, including President Obama – have renewed a push for changes to existing gun laws.
Yet others say that mental health services, rather than gun reform, should be the focus.
A review last year by a group of Midwest journalism professors and students found that many college counseling centers across the region do not have enough staff to meet the recommended ratio of one counselor for every 1,500 students.
The latest survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors – due to be released soon – found that more college counseling centers are hiring staff, reversing a four-year trend yet all the while demand for services continues to rise.
“It’s kind of like a small town with four-lane highways coming into from four different directions,” said Dr. Dan Jones, president of the association. “So there are all these cars coming into a small town but nowhere for them to go.”
As universities and colleges have set up intervention teams in recent years to identify and help troubled students earlier, more and more non-mental health professionals are making referrals to counseling centers.
But college counseling centers continue to struggle to keep up with the demand for services as more and more students seek help.
Carla McCowan, director for the mental health center at the University of Illinois in Urbana, said the increased demand for services over the past few year have prompted staff to revisit the process.
Students in crisis are seen the same day, but follow-up appointments can take up to a few weeks.
“So we’re really talking about, OK, what’s the tipping point but at the same time, you open your gates even wider on the front end but how do you continue to respond to hold that many students,” McCowan said. “The question is how are we going to develop a system that really kind of responds, what’s the balance?”
Jones said typically, college counseling centers are called on to do more when there are cases like the shooting in Colorado last year, where a graduate student allegedly killed 12 people and wounded nearly 60 in a movie theater in Aurora.
But Jones cautioned against the prediction of violence.
People who suffer from mental illness tend to be the victims, rather than the criminals, he said.
“So I think that’s something that gets lost in the discussion and you know, there’s no test that you can give somebody that will predict violence for people that come into university counseling centers,” Jones said.
More mental health services both on campus and in the community may help intercept and reroute some of these violent paths, he said.
But over the past two decades, mental health services across the country have been dismantled, Jones noted.
And it’s these mental health services that Champaign County Sheriff Dan Walsh said deserve the attention – not gun law reform.
In a Jan. 29 letter to state lawmakers, Walsh wrote that “there is no real public safety reason not to pass a conceal carry law”
Instead, Walsh argued, the real crisis is the lack of mental health facilities and treatment.
“The lack of appropriate care facilities and treatment in our communities has gotten much worse,” Walsh writes. “Please devote your efforts and our limited monies to these very real issues.”
Walsh said that at any given time, between 20 and 50 percent of the jail’s inmates suffer from some kind of mental illness.
“Our numbers, if anything, increased because the bed space with the state has decreased,” Walsh said.
At any one time, there are five to seven inmates on a waiting list for a bed in a mental health facility, he said.
“We are not designed nor is a jail a good place to engage in long term mental health treatment, it’s just not good,” Walsh said.
Semi-assault weapons have not been a problem in Champaign County or Central Illinois, Walsh said.
“On the other hand, mentally ill folks in both the problems they have and the problems they cause that is to me a significant problem in Champaign County,” Walsh said.
But access to guns should be looked at too, Jones said, as reducing a person’s access to the means of suicide helps prevent suicide.
“Men complete suicide more often than women; women attempt suicide three times more often than men but men succeed more often, Jones said. “Usually the reason men succeed more often is they have more violent means which means, in this case, is usually guns.”
Illinois state law prevents guns on public property, such as the University of Illinois, but some college campuses allow guns.
“If guns were allowed on campus, it’s hard to know what impact that would have on violence, like school shootings but I’m fairly confident that suicide rates would increase,” Jones said.
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