Fragile: As mental health enters national debate, MSU reaches out to community


Adam Lanza, age 20.
James Holmes, 25.
Seung-Hui Cho, 23.

All college-age students. All students who will live in infamy in U.S. history books for the violent, unfathomable acts they committed.

As the U.S. recovers from the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 26 people dead, President Barack Obama has assigned a task force on gun violence, placing Vice President Joe Biden as its leader in developing solutions to keep events, such as those that occurred in Newtown, Conn., or Aurora, Colo., from happening again.

Many might identify gun control and other forms of legislation as possible resolutions to gun violence, but Biden and some legislators said the U.S. should participate in a broader discussion about mental health in relation to these tragedies.

Holmes, who allegedly killed 12 and wounded 58 in a Colorado movie theater, most likely will pursue an insanity defense with the help of his attorneys if his case goes to trial, though no evidence has been presented yet about Holmes’ mental state. Cho, who murdered 32 people and injured 17 others at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in 2007, told his school’s therapist he suffered from symptoms of depression and anxiety, according to mental health records.

It is important to distinguish that not every mentally ill person is prone to violence, said Stephanie Colwell, president of MSU Active Minds.

Click to hear Colwell discuss Active Minds and mental health stigma.

As America tries to find solutions to the numerous mass shootings, MSU officials and students have a message to offer those who might be suffering from depression or other mental illnesses: help is here at MSU.

“Ask, and we’ll help”

Asking for mental help isn’t easy for some, but MSU wants to make sure all of its students are healthy — physically and mentally.

The National College Health Assessment, or NCHA, surveys undergraduate and graduate students at MSU every two years. The most recent survey conducted in 2012 showed 56.6 percent of respondents said they felt very sad and 53.6 percent of respondents felt very lonely. A fifth of both these groups said they had felt this way within the past two weeks.

Scott Becker, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate director at MSU’s Counseling Center, said MSU is involved in a campus-wide effort to identify students who are in need of mental health services and provide support early enough to keep a school shooting from happening at MSU.

Training is offered for faculty and staff through the MSU Counseling Center and an online reporting system allows students to receive early help and timely support from professionals.

“Every MSU employee, faculty and student has a shared responsibility for creating an open and interactive dialogue,” Becker said in an email. “The Counseling Center routinely offers training and consultation to faculty and staff regarding ways to identify and refer students in need of services.”

Becker said the Counseling Center provides online or on-campus assessment tools, or students can seek counseling from on-campus venues including the MSU Counseling Center.

But Becker said the Center’s “overarching goal” is to de-stigmatize help-seeking for those in need.
“Coming to counseling and seeking other forms of personal and professional help is a sign of strength,” Becker said.

Dennis Martell, health education coordinator at Olin Student Health Center, said stigmas associated with mental health are a barrier to those who consider seeking it.

“As much as possible, we need to help people get the help they need,” Martell said. “If you feel you need the help, just ask and we’ll help. We want students to be successful. We want them to be at full capacity.”

Martell said Olin has a psychiatry department to provide mental help for students.But not every student who feels sad or has mental health concerns necessarily suffers from a mental illness, Martell said.

“We can’t label every person who suffers from a little bit of depression as mentally ill,” Martell said.

“Sometimes, people are just concerned about different issues in their life and need to talk to someone. That doesn’t mean they’re mentally ill — it just means they’re human.”

Help down the hall

Residence Education and Housing Services, or REHS, wants to make sure that students who are seeking help for mental illness receive it in a timely manner.

“We diligently train (resident assistants) on many subjects with professionals from across campus,” Kathy Collins, director of REHS, said in a statement.

“All of our residence halls are (in partnership) with a counselor from the Counseling Center for an on-going, collaborative relationship.”

Collins added that REHS staff, including resident assistants and custodial staff, receive training on what to do in case of an emergency.

For students looking for mental assistance in a collaborative setting, MSU has a student organization that can help. Active Minds is a group on campus that focuses on reducing the stigma attached to mental health, Colwell said.

Colwell said the group acts as a “middle man” for people looking for mental help, instructing them to go to the counseling center to get the help they need.

“I, myself, have dealt with depression and I didn’t think anyone could help,” Colwell said.

“Only when it got to the point where I was hospitalized for depression did I realize that people understand and want to help.”

Colwell expressed concern about the possible stigmas associated with mental health because of the recent shooting.

“If they are mentally ill, it doesn’t mean they’re bad people,” Colwell said.

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