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Troubled students a concern on, off campus

Before the headlines fade about the tragic shooting in Arizona, a nationwide discussion needs to take place about how our mental-health system is serving our students.

Before the headlines fade about the tragic shooting in Arizona, a nationwide discussion needs to take place about how our mental-health system is serving our students.

It's well established that 22-year-old Jared Loughner's behavior wasn't normal and that there were indications he needed help. One of his former classmates at Pima Community College wrote to a friend, "We have a mentally unstable person in the class who scares the living crap out of me. He is one of those whose picture you see on the news, after he comes to class with an automatic weapon."

The fact that fellow students, as well as faculty, were afraid to be around Loughner reveals how obviously he needed help. The college suspended him in the fall and said to return he had to obtain clearance from a mental-health professional indicating he would not pose a threat to himself or others.

Left to get help on his own rather than the college asking a court to order a psychiatric evaluation, as it could under Arizona law, Loughner never returned to college. Three months later, he stands accused of shooting down a crowd of people at a meet-and-greet event hosted by Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. She and 13 others were injured; six died.

No one expects colleges to be able to monitor every student's behavior. Yet, when mentally unstable behavior is identified, it's incumbent upon institutions to do the responsible thing and use every means necessary to get the person help.

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Working through law enforcement and the courts is one way. Behavioral intervention teams that coordinate care is a method some schools are using, according to the New York Times. The American Association of Community Colleges says most of the nation's nearly 1,200 community colleges do not employ a psychologist among their staff of campus counselors.

Tight budgets mean it is unlikely additional counselors will be hired at most public institutions. Minnesota Public Radio News reported that several Minnesota community colleges are cutting positions in their counseling departments to help deal with expected budget shortfalls. As demand for those services grows, that's a bad move. The public needs to stress to their lawmakers the importance of mental-health issues so funding doesn't disappear and collaboration of services remains a priority.

Paying more attention to mental-health issues in general will better educate society and campus communities about when people need help. There has been a big jump in the number of students on campus with serious psychological disorders, according to MPR. Those students make up 44 percent of students who come to college counseling centers now, says a report from the American College Counseling Association. A decade ago, it was 16 percent. At the University of Minnesota, the campus mental health clinic saw 2,490 students last year, about 90 percent more than a decade ago.

The increase in the number of students needing mental health care doesn't necessarily mean more students are ill these days. It's likely they're more readily getting help than in the past, and more people struggling with mental illness are now enrolling.

The bulk of those students does not pose a threat to public safety and never will. They are students, like many in the general population who struggle with mental health either because of current stressful situations or chronic conditions. Treatment makes their illness manageable.

But when students do pose a threat to themselves or others, institutions need to be proactive and use all means possible to get the student professional help -- for the sake of the student, the campus and the community.

Related Topics: HEALTH
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