Sunday, March 31, 2013

Ode to the Campus Police

There are many campus departments deserving of praise, and many that work silently toward enhancing the well-being of campus communities without receiving a shred of positive attention.  The campus police department is one of these.

College counseling centers often work very closely with the police, especially in the area of crisis intervention services and various teams whose purpose is to prevent and respond to disruption and violence on campus.  Collaborations such as these were once infrequent but soared after the Virginia Tech tragedy and statutes requiring them were developed in that state.  A great many institutions have adopted collaborative models and, as of this writing, at least two others states have either adopted similar legislation or are considering it.

And so it is that mental health and campus safety professionals work arm in arm, many times in the wee hours of the day, attending to critical student needs.  Many stakeholders are unaware of the fine-tuned responsiveness of campus police departments.  In this area of their work, they are not just certified law enforcement personnel with investigative and arrest authority, though they are certainly that as well; they are supportive educators providing students with valuable life lessons.  Beyond consequences for negative behavior, often delineated in institutional codes of student conduct, officers are a living example of institutional care for the student and community.  Through their actions one may experience powerful messages, such as: "we are paying attention to you", "we will respond to you", and "we will go to great lengths to see to your safety and the safety of others".  This level of responsiveness is many times not available in municipal police departments, simply because the missions are so decidedly different.

A campus police officer may, for example, conduct welfare checks on individuals suspected of being in acute distress.  He or she may knock on the doors of, say, 40 apartments, in a search for a student.  This could happen in the middle of the night, or even when the university is closed for a holiday.  On occasion they may transport a student to a counseling appointment, or to the hospital when situations warrant it.  They may accompany a counselor to the scene of a crisis event, without any expectation of being directly involved unless needed, just to raise feelings of security among all who are present.  All of this may happen without any further actions on the part of the officer and police department.

Much of this activity is invisible to the campus community.  But a great many adverse events are contained, and a great many students are assisted, in just this manner.  Well-trained campus police officers are not there just to get us into trouble, as some would have us believe.  They are a vital part of the overall welfare of the community, and they are deserving of our praise.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

How to Refer a Student for Counseling

There are both more and less effective ways to refer a student for counseling. Following the guidelines suggested below should help concerned others initiate and complete a successful referral.

1. Express your concern directly to the student. Be respectful, honest and straightforward in your language about the emotional health issues that you are noticing. Avoid belittling them or communicating pity. Remember that they are just not feeling well; otherwise they're just like you.
2. Check your own attitude about mental health services. If you see it as a negative thing chances are good the student will perceive that as well. Encourage them in this positive undertaking and ask them to call the counseling service to set an appointment. They can call from your location, or you can offer to call for them. If you call please be aware that centers generally don't allow third parties to set an appointment, but you can get the process started and then hand the phone to the student. You can also offer to walk the student to the center to set the first appointment.
3. You may call a psychologist first yourself if you have questions about services or about communicating with the student. If you wish to report your concerns to mental health professionals, please take great care to stay close to the facts as you know them. Steer clear of rumors, hearsay, or gossip, or at least identify it as such. A factual report leads to the best interventions and outcomes. False reports can lead to negative events for both the student and for you, including civil court proceedings and campus judicial sanctions.
4. In some cases mental health professionals will recommend that you meet with the student and give you suggestions about what and how to communicate with him or her. From the student's point of view, such an encounter is logical because you are known to them and they can understand why you might be concerned. Due to normal anxieties it is natural for you to feel an urge to disengage from the situation, but doing so is less than ideal. Try to stay engaged for the short period that is needed. After that, others will take over and assume responsibility for further assessment, counseling, or referral. Some feel they either don't have the right to "intrude" into students' personal lives, or feel they should avoid any responsibility for information they obtain about them. In our view, neither perspective is reasonable. Expressing concern for others based on observable behavior is not a violation of privacy, and once you inform others who are in a position to help, you have discharged responsibility you have for the information you obtained. This does not mean, however, that you should not remain involved to some degree, as noted above. Faculty and Staff members may also refer to FERPA guidance for other information on this topic.
5. In cases in which there is not an emergency or a life-threatening issue, one cannot "force" a student into counseling. One can only encourage it and keep monitoring the situation. Attempting to coerce or "trick" such students into counseling can backfire horribly; they may come to see counseling as negative and you as manipulative, thereby losing trust and faith in both. If they do pursue counseling on their own, it is highly important they feel a sense of privacy and a good measure of control over their affairs.
6. This does not mean, however, that you should never give a student an ultimatum about changing their behavior. Some parents or authority figures should consider doing so if the behavior in question is self-destructive or disruptive for others. The key in this scenario is "behavior change", and this can occur both in and out of the context of counseling. Counseling can be a useful mechanism of behavior change, but it isn't the only one. Sometimes parents, for example, may tell their student that they will withhold funding for school if they do not change failing grades, repeated alcohol violations, etc, and add that counseling is one way they can work on this. This can be quite effective when done well.
7. In emergency situations be mindful of your and others' safety. If safety appears to be an imminent concern, call 911 or your campus police department.  If safety is not an issue but the student is in an acute crisis with obvious signs of distress, a counselor may come to the scene to assist. Be aware that some have a policy to have a police officer with them in these circumstances, in the event that there is an escalation of disruptive or aggressive behavior.