College stress can lead to much more than unwashed hair, red-rimmed eyes and the caffeine jitters of an all-night cram session.
Higher education’s pressures, mixed with underlying mental factors, can push college students to violent thoughts — or even acts, local educators say.
These factors have fallen under public scrutiny in the media storm that followed a shooting spree in a packed Colorado movie theater that killed 12 and wounded dozens of other people.
Faculty watch students for red flags, and institutions such as the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse have support networks in place to assist students considering suicide or other forms of violence.
“We know that different people have different abilities to cope with stress,” said Betty DeBoer, associate professor of psychology at UW-L. “We know that ongoing stress can lead to depression and lots of those types of behaviors.”
Suspected Colorado shooter James Holmes was college educated — a quality he shares with at least two other men who made headlines in the wake of mass shootings.
Jared Loughner allegedly killed six and wounded 14, including U.S. Sen. Gabrielle Giffords near an Arizona supermarket.
Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and wounded 17 at Virginia Tech University before committing suicide.
Psychoses such as schizophrenia usually develop in early adulthood — coincidentally when most students are busy with college, DeBoer said.
DeBoer has worked at a UW-Madison psychosis lab, but most university instructors — and not just those in the psychology department — are briefed on the warning signs of mental instability.
DeBoer looks for students who show inappropriate behavior and what she calls a “deterioration” of hygiene and mood: Students who start the semester strong but start missing classes or coming disheveled.
“My biggest red flag is usually students stop coming to class,” she said.
DeBoer looks for a pattern, though she admits this is easier for her because she often instructs smaller, graduate-level classes.
She then reaches out to the student and invites them to talk about their options.
“I have literally called students,” DeBoer said.
Joci Newton, an associate professor of psychology at UW-L, looks for students who express violent thoughts in writing, who undergo extreme behavior changes in the course of a semester or school-year, or who come to class under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
When she finds a student who is suffering mentally, she acts.
For both Newton and DeBoer, that means sending students to trained university staff.
“I can’t provide any treatment to my students,” Newton said. “I have to refer them out.”
Support on UW-L’s campus includes the Student Life office, the counseling center, and a disability resource center.
The college also has a team of counseling staff, administration and campus police dedicated to intervening before a student’s problems get out of hand, said Paula Knudson, UW-L assistant chancellor and dean of students.
The “Behavior Intervention Team” supports students who act out in ways that warrant counseling or medical attention.
Professors can find it hard to talk about a specific students with colleagues, especially under confidentiality requirements, Newton said.
“Then you start thinking, well, am I the only one that’s seeing this?” Newton said.
The university’s intervention team also serves as a way to encourage communication — a place for faculty and staff to share concerns about a student.
“The more information we have,” Knudson said, “the more likely we are to be able to hopefully prevent harm.”