Campus safety study calls for focus on mental health

Published May 24, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - A university safety task force formed after the Virginia Tech shootings is making a broad range of recommendations, including a focus on mental health issues, that goes way beyond simply helping college students.

The state should improve mental health services for students from kindergarten through high school and ask the federal government for help in increasing antibullying efforts and prevention programs for alcohol and substance abuse and domestic violence, the panel's report says.

Also, the Department of Children and Families needs to improve its mental health programs and expand services. Bob Butterworth, who heads the DCF, chairs the task force.

"Especially in the area of substance abuse and mental health, they have not been adequately funded, " said Jim Sewell, a former Florida Department of Law Enforcement regional director who served as a task force adviser.

The report was being finalized late Wednesday afternoon and was to go to Gov. Charlie Crist today. Crist formed the task force after a student with a history of mental problems killed 32 people and wounded 25 before taking his own life at Virginia Tech on April 16.

Many of the recommendations involve recognizing, reporting and treating mental health problems, though the report stresses that very few people with mental illnesses are violent.

"Mental illness is not a predictor of violence. Individuals with mental health disorders are more often the victims of violence than the perpetrators, and students abusing alcohol and other drugs are more likely to commit acts of violence than a student with a mental disorder, " the 29-page report said.

It also suggests universities develop stronger communications with the state's regional domestic security task forces and outside law enforcement agencies and that each hire an emergency management director, provide more training for campus police and create salary and benefit packages that will make it easier to recruit top police officers.

Faculty members should be trained to recognize potential problems, the report says, but with sensitivity, to keep students from being reported as a potential threat just because they were having a bad day.

The report also says universities must recognize the stigma associated with mental illness and make it easier for students who need it to seek help.

"Staff and students will frequently observe behavior that is beyond the norm. For instance, essays and term papers submitted by an affected student may contain disturbing or threatening remarks, " the report said. "Too often, however, faculty, staff and students will not know early warning signs, are unaware of procedures for referral of students in crisis or do not want to become involved."

The study suggests that universities develop and teach an introductory course on mental health.

The report also makes suggestions on responding to crisis situations and how to alert students, as well as setting a standard for the minimum number of police officers each campus should have.