The recent arrest of a UCLA student in the brutal stabbing of a classmate in a campus chemistry lab has again focused attention on an issue that gripped the nation after the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech: the mental health of troubled college students.
The Virginia Tech shootings, which left 32 victims and the gunman dead, raised difficult questions about how a disturbed student could have been allowed to remain at the school despite danger signs.
Since then, campuses in California and around the country say they watch their students ever more closely for signs of possible mental illness or other problems. They have set up teams of counselors, police and administrators to screen reports about potentially troubled students and to discuss treatment or discipline. And many colleges are prepared to act more quickly than in the past, particularly if there is any explicit warning of violence, college mental health and other experts say.
The Virginia Tech killings were followed last year by a deadly attack at Northern Illinois University, in which a former graduate student killed five students and himself.
Since the two incidents, "campuses are more on guard and aggressive about these issues," said Brian Van Brunt, president-elect of the American College Counseling Assn.
Many colleges now require a mental health assessment for a troubled student to stay enrolled and more readily expel those who refuse to comply, said Van Brunt, who heads the counseling center at Western Kentucky University.
But the road to identifying troubled students and treating them or intervening is less clear-cut when there is no threat or hint of violence against themselves or others, he and other college counselors said. Although campus safety is the first concern, civil liberties and privacy also must be safeguarded as more students with mental health problems attend college than in the past, they emphasized.
Such tensions are expected to be explored in legal proceedings against Damon Thompson, the UCLA student who allegedly slashed the throat of a 20-year-old female student in a lab Oct. 8. The woman was hospitalized for 10 days and released in good condition, officials said. Thompson, who has pleaded not guilty to an attempted murder charge and is being held on $3-million bail, had no previous criminal record or complaints against him, campus police reported.
However, faculty and students have said that Thompson, 20, had exhibited erratic and perhaps delusional behavior in the past, although not of a specifically violent nature.
Last year, Stephen Frank, a UCLA associate professor, notified campus authorities about paranoid and accusatory e-mails that Thompson had sent him. Frank said he learned recently that other professors had made similar reports but also were told that UCLA could not force the student into treatment.
The professor said he understands that troubled students cannot be expelled unless there is a threatening situation, but he contends that UCLA dropped the ball by not keeping tabs on Thompson.
"I'm not trying to imply that the tragedy could have been prevented. I'm not that prescient," Frank said last week. "I'm simply saying there was a possibility if somebody had been paying attention."
Thompson's defense attorney, Robin B. Berkovitz, said she needed more time to research his mental health record before commenting.
UCLA officials said that Thompson was known to the Student Affairs office, which includes counseling, before the attack, but that privacy rules prevent them from discussing specifics. In an interview, Elizabeth Gong-Guy, director of UCLA's Counseling and Psychological Services, spoke in general about what would prompt the school to take action against a troubled or potentially violent student.
"We take very seriously our duty to protect the safety and security of the campus. If there is a student who is seen as an active danger to themselves or others, we act very, very aggressively," she said, adding that options include hospitalization or calling in police.
But Gong-Guy said erratic behavior that does not violate conduct rules could lead to no action other than asking the student to meet with a psychologist for assessment.
Being odd "is not necessarily a sign of a mental health issue and certainly not a sign of danger or violence," she said. "If you were the brilliant student who was also paranoid and not hurting anybody and not breaking any rules, it's not clear how a public university could deny you the right to attend college."
Symptoms of mental illness may first appear during a student's college years. But mental health issues are center stage on campuses in ways unthinkable a generation or so ago, in part because thousands of students with severe depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are able to attend college thanks to medicines not available in the past.
Yet some students, away from parental supervision, stop taking the psychotropic medicines they need, said Emil Rodolfa, UC Davis' director of Counseling and Psychological Services. "Students come here and feel a sense of freedom and say, 'I don't really need my medicines any more.' And that is not so helpful to them or to the environment," he said.
Rodolfa said his campus has seen sharp increases in the number of students seeking counseling, from about 8% of the student body in 2002 to 14% last year. He attributed that to higher numbers of students with previously diagnosed problems and to a generation that finds it "more acceptable to say I'm stressed or depressed today."
Colleges try to retain students if they are not violent, said Keith Anderson, chairman of the American College Health Assn.'s best practices task force in mental health. "The goal is to keep them in school, keep them functioning and engaged, and in treatment at the same time," said Anderson, who is a staff psychologist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Tory, N.Y. In the great majority of cases, that proves successful, he said.
Concerns about another Virginia Tech-like tragedy are valid, Anderson said. But he emphasized that "campuses are very safe places" and that such incidents occur rarely.
In a recent survey of campus health officials, the American College Counseling Assn. found that 10% of students sought some psychological counseling last year and that 93% of the schools surveyed had seen increasing numbers of students "with severe psychological problems."
The report noted "growing intolerance by faculty and others about students perceived to be odd."
At UC Santa Barbara, Michael D. Young, vice chancellor for student affairs, also said that student mental health problems are rising. Young said that during the first decade of his 30 years in the field, he had to suspend one student a year on average because of a threat or violent behavior. More recently, six to seven students a year are suspended or decide to leave school just before such discipline, he said.
In 2001, a UC Santa Barbara student with a history of mental problems and drug abuse drove his car into a crowd of pedestrians in a nearby neighborhood, killing four people. A judge found the student, David Attias, guilty of second-degree murder, ruled him insane and committed him indefinitely to a mental hospital.
Young, who is co-chair of the UC system's Student Mental Health Oversight Committee, two years ago helped persuade UC leaders to provide additional funding to hire psychologists and counselors across the 10 campuses. Now the state's financial crisis threatens those gains, he said.
"The problem certainly has not gone away," he said. "The increasing numbers and severity of student psychological distress have not diminished."