No Longer Afraid to Consult

Five years after the tragic killings at Virginia Tech, counseling centers report that they are much more likely than in the past to hear from professors who are worried about a student.

April 16, 2012

Five years ago today, Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people, including himself, and wounded 25 more at Virginia Tech, shocking the nation and spurring colleges to re-evaluate their safety procedures and mental health programs. It was the deadliest shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history, let alone on a college campus.

One of the most notable trends to emerge in the shooting’s aftermath is that of Behavioral Intervention Teams, or BITs, which typically include members from across campus: counselors, administrators, faculty and staff. When somebody indicates that a student may be troubled or at risk, a BIT can examine the case and possibly help the student seek assistance.

But the rise of the BIT – made possible through greater efforts by counseling centers to train campus employees to recognize signs of distress – corresponded with another, less visible trend, counselors say: more faculty than ever began calling counseling centers for help when they thought something seemed off.

Virtually all counselors agree that it’s better to have more eyes out there than fewer, and having faculty members more attuned to the behavior of their students can only be a good thing. But the rise in “faculty consultations” – now considered an official outreach initiative at 9 in 10 counseling centers, along with programs like suicide and sexual assault prevention – has also, for some, become something of a time sap.

Faculty were demanding so much time of the counselors at Texas State University at San Marcos that counseling center director Greg Snodgrass had to put a staffer on call every day. Each counselor must now devote two hours each week to consultations, which they provide not just to faculty but to parents and students as well.

“It seems like their urgency is a little stronger now than it used to be, and it seems as though the conversation lasts longer,” said Dan Jones, director of counseling and psychological services at Appalachian State University. But Jones, who is also president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, stopped short of calling the service a burden.

“Now it seems like not only do [faculty] want the consultation, but they need more encouragement and support in kind of dealing with their own emotions, because of, I guess, their fear that a student might do something that happened at Virginia Tech and NIU,” Jones said, referring to the Feb. 14, 2008 shooting in which a former Northern Illinois University student killed five, wounded 18 others and shot himself in a lecture hall.

But they’re also being encouraged to be more alert to signs of trouble. About 48 percent of counseling centers last year trained faculty members and others on campus to help them “make more timely and appropriate referrals,” according to the annual AUCCCD survey

Victor W. Barr, lead researcher on the survey and director of counseling services at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, says this recent emphasis on training is directly related to the rise in consultations. That same task – helping faculty members know when to refer – is a large part of what counselors do when a professor calls for help.

In most cases, Barr said, the faculty are not acting out of irrational fear or paranoia. “It happens some, but most people who call do it very appropriately,” he said. “Most times they’re concerned about somebody, and there’s reason to be concerned. Sometimes a person is acting O.K. but their situation is troubling. And sometimes people are just a little weird.”

That’s why Barr encourages faculty members to trust their gut, and not “discriminate” when it comes to making a call or referring a student. So when an instructor notices a student is constantly missing class, or referencing suicide or homicide in essays, or has a sudden drop in grades, professors shouldn’t overanalyze it – they can leave that to the counselors and BITs.

When Barr does get a call, depending on the severity of the situation, he might send the case manager down to see the student, or wait it out until a more “naturally occurring” person can check in with the student – someone he or she will feel comfortable with, like a residence hall assistant, a coach or a Greek life adviser. Through this process, Barr said, his counseling center typically gets 5 to 10 students referred each week.

“When we get to see them fairly early in the process, it’s much easier to figure out what’s going on with them,” he said. “What we hope is that it’ll be caught early, or before real damage occurs to the students.”

As faculty co-chair of Appalachian State’s Early Intervention Team, theater and dance professor Martha Marking is often the one advising her colleagues. That might consist of simply telling someone to refer a student to the counseling center (in the case of a young man who seemed upset about a recent break-up), or it might involve an immediate intervention by the team or a dean of students. Last semester, Marking’s team saw about 130 students, most of whom were forthcoming and open to advice.

The EIT, which comprises 17 faculty and staff from various departments, is trained by counselors, professors and outside consultants on how to approach students and discuss issues so they’re able to advise others and work with students.

“All of this really stemmed from the Virginia Tech incident and other incidents. If a student is writing, say, a disturbing paper, is there anyone English faculty members can go to, to raise their concern?” Marking said. “What we’re trying to do, really, is not have the student fall through the cracks…. We don’t want the students to not feel that they’re not important to our campus community, we want them to feel like someone is noticing that they are looking really tired, or that they haven’t been coming to class.”

Faculty consultations are an “extremely important resource,” Jones said, but the service and the manpower it requires are “kind of invisible.”

“The statistics that most people look at is, how many clients did you see last year, or how many sessions did you have last year,” Jones said. “It’s something that takes up time and energy, but doesn’t show up in the annual reports as well as it should.”

The on-call system at San Marcos requires 20 hours of staff time each week that could have been used to actually see students – even as post-recession counseling center budgets aren’t what they once were, and students need more appointments and have more severe psychological problems than ever.

“I’m glad we did that, because we are responsive to things more immediately, we are serving students who might not otherwise seek us out, and perhaps catching things before they get worse,” he said. “The only downside is, it’s just more service with not necessarily more resources. That’s the only problem.”

One professor who Snodgrass advised recently needed guidance after one of her students alarmed everyone in an incident during class. Barbara Sanders, chair of the physical therapy department, declined to get into the specifics for fear of implicating the student. But she said Snodgrass helped her react to that individual (who declined Sanders’ offer for on-campus services, opting rather to seek private, off-campus help) and the rest of the students in the class (confidentiality concerns didn't preclude her from addressing what happened, telling them the student sought help and seeing if they needed anything). Within 12 hours, Sanders was on to the next thing.

The Virginia Tech shooting really raised the anxieties of faculty at San Marcos, Sanders said – that was clear when Texas legislators were considering allowing concealed weapons on campus. At a rural university that might not have the same safety concerns as one in, say, New York City, the shooting heightened awareness.

“The awareness is there, we just haven’t gotten to the comfort zone of what the management is of some of that yet,” Sanders said. “We’re in a different environment, and we have to learn different strategies to deal with that.”


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