For mental health risks, depts. work together

The U created a team after the Virgina Tech massacre.
February 07, 2013

Seung-Hui Cho had raised red flags in the years before he went on a shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, killing 32 — but information wasn’t shared among officials enough to address his problems.

A state report on the shooting partially faulted the school for not realizing the gravity of Cho’s problems: “no one connected the dots,” it said.

 “Lots of people on Virginia Tech’s campus had documentation about the student, but they didn’t know each other had the information,” said Sharon Dzik, director of the University of Minnesota’s Office for Student Conduct and Academic Integrity.

“It wasn’t a well-kept center for information.”

In response to that shooting, the University of Minnesota created the Behavioral Consultation Team, made of 25 mental health professionals, legal experts and University community members who evaluate situations where students have shown abnormal or threatening behavior.

With several high-profile mass shootings in the past year, colleges’ focus on mental illness has only grown.

More than a quarter of students at the University’s Twin Cities campus reported being diagnosed with a mental illness within their lifetime, according to the Boynton Health Service 2010 College Student Health Survey.

The BCT begins evaluating a student if it receives a call from any concerned member of the University community, Dzik said. The team members then consult each other to see if there have been previous reports on the same student — something that didn’t happen at Virginia Tech before the 2007 massacre.

“One of the things that is important about the BCT or any intervention team is that it should never land on one person’s shoulders to make a decision,” she said. “We take that very seriously.”

The team also consists of representatives from University police, University Counseling and Consulting Services and One Stop Student Services.

If the BCT decides a student needs help or poses a potential threat, it will meet to discuss further actions, Dzik said. Those actions can be disciplinary, but most of the time, the student is referred to a mental health service.

Glenn Hirsch, director of University Counseling and Consulting Services and a member of the BCT, said most of the students the team evaluates are experiencing some sort of mental health issue.

“Most of [the students] are not receiving appropriate treatment,” he said. “So part of the goal for us as a team is to get them to the types of services they need.”

The need for an intervention team has always been present, Hirsch said, but the Virginia Tech shooting changed the way universities thought about addressing mental health needs.

Last year, the BCT responded to 96 reports, but fewer than 10 of them required serious action like a police report or expulsion, Dzik said.

University police may become involved if a student makes a terroristic threat, said Lt. Troy Buhta, who represents University police on the BCT.

“Some of the cases we deal with could possibly become criminal or already are criminal,” he said. “Having knowledge of the criminal justice system is an important source for the team.”

Other Universities across the country founded similar teams in the wake of the Virginia Tech shooting, said Jane Caton, manager of the University of Iowa’s Threat Assessment Team.

With two members, Iowa’s team is considerably smaller than Minnesota’s, but Caton said that makes it easier to talk with the troubled student directly.

“We come clean with what we are doing,” she said. “It’s really surprising to see just how open [the students] are and really willing to talk with us.”

Iowa’s TAT responds to more voluntary evaluations than a typical intervention team, Caton said. Students who are depressed or suicidal often contact the team looking for helpful resources.

Minnesota students can volunteer to have themselves evaluated, too, but Dzik said those situations are rare.

“If a student is already willing to call us, they are probably already willing to get help from other resources,” she said.

Although threat assessment remains a key function of the BCT, Hirsch said most of the students the group deals with aren’t serious threats.

“There’s a common misconception this team is primarily about threat assessment,” he said. “But our main goal is to try and help a student who is really having a hard time and is expressing that in a way that is a problem for the University.”

Sometimes students could have had a bad day, and an isolated incident could lead them to be reported to the BCT, Dzik said. In those situations, the BCT will usually give the reporting person advice on how to work out the issue with the student himself or herself.

“We really want people to be successful in school, so we try to help people,” she said. “We don’t just kick people out of school.”

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