On campus, a struggle to meet mental-health needs

Shootings this week at a Virginia law school point up challenges of helping troubled students.

The Appalachian School of Law is not a typical "sink or swim" campus, but a place where the philosophy is to give second - even third - chances.

That's why the school, set in rural Grundy, Va., let Peter Odighizuwa return for a second year, after failing his first. It's also why the faculty got together to buy him a car, after his was totaled in an accident, and helped his children get into a local private school.

Though many in the close-knit academic community seemed aware that Mr. Odighizuwa was often troubled and angry, mental-health services were a luxury the five-year-old law school could not afford. And certainly, no one counted on the gun. Now he is charged in this week's shooting deaths of the school's dean, a professor, and a student.

The tragedy presents an acute side of a larger problem: how to address mental-health problems on college campuses.

"One of the trends we have noticed over the last 10 years is an increase of students with much more serious psychological problems," says Robert Gallagher, former director of counseling and student development at the University of Pittsburgh. He oversees an annual survey of campus counseling-center directors, now in its 20th year.

The challenge of inadequate mental-health services hit public schools hard, after a wave of high-profile shootings in the 1990s. Suddenly, school boards even in rural areas began putting more resources into student counseling and security.

The issue is much less talked about on college campuses. But experts cite many reasons for the growing mental-health caseload: families that don't function, student drinking and substance abuse that exacerbate psychological problems, and intense academic pressure. After cutting counseling services in the 1980s, colleges and universities began beefing them up in the 1990s to deal with the problem.

Still, on many campuses, demand for such services is outstripping these new efforts. To cope, many colleges reverted to "time-limited therapy" - which restricts the number of sessions a counselor can have with a student on campus - or simply referred students to outside therapists. Those solutions are not meeting the need, says Mr. Gallagher.

At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which tried the referral approach for serious problems, the administration said in November it would significantly expand on-campus counseling services to better oversee students feeling emotional and academic pressure. For years, students and parents had complained about the suicide rate on the campus.

This fall has seen rising mental-health demands on campuses nationwide.

"Talk to counseling directors on campuses across the country, and you'll find that this year has been particularly intense, especially since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11," says psychologist Dennis Heitzmann, director of the Center for Counseling at Pennsylvania State University, at University Park. "We are finding that those who had experienced other trauma at other points in their lives were finding that unresolved issues were rising to the surface."

That's especially true for foreign-exchange students "concerned about incidents of harassment," he adds.

Harassment appears not to have been an issue at Appalachian School of Law. When students had problems, the 12 faculty members often put their heads together to help solve them. In the small, tight-knit academic community - whose legal specialty was problem-solving skills - it seemed to work.

Until Wednesday. Former students remember the alleged gunman as a troubled man who often spoke of his need for more money and had great difficulty in his classes.

"Everyone there felt that it didn't matter if you were not capable of succeeding the first time. If you had the desire, the gumption, to apply again, why shouldn't you be given a second chance?" says Julie Palas, a former student at ALC, now working as special projects counsel for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

"To allow him to come back and try again was a characteristic of what the school was all about.... Perhaps if we had had a trained professional, they might have seen something," she adds.

The US Department of Education reports that the incidence of crime at colleges and universities is significantly lower than in surrounding areas. "Campuses are typically a safer environment than the areas they serve," says spokeswoman Lindsey Kozberg. Figures show campus homicides spiked to 24 in 1998, then dropped to 11 in 1999. The department will release campus crime figures for 2000 later this month.

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