November 29, 2023

It was a coincidence that the ACHA (American College Health Association) Gun Safety Task Force met shortly after the shooting at Michigan State University earlier this month on February 13, said Dr. Keith Williamson, task force co-chair and medical director of the Vinson Health Center at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, TX.

Dr.  Keith Williamson, co-chair of the ACHA Gun Safety Task Force and medical director at Vinson Health Center at Midwestern State University.Dr. Keith Williamson, co-chair of the ACHA Gun Safety Task Force and medical director at Vinson Health Center at Midwestern State University.“Every time one of these events happens, we feel like we’re losing ground, that it’s getting away from us,” Williamson said.

The ACHA Gun Safety Task Force, five doctors and scientists from institutions around the country, is trying to “address this phenomenon in society, with the ultimate goal of understanding it and reducing its occurrence,” Williamson said. “We’re working to come up with some kind of understanding that will help guide the ACHA when they have to deal with the heart and mind events surrounding the shooting.”

While campus shootings are extremely rare, Williamson said, the mental health and well-being of students, faculty and staff can be profoundly affected by these events, making it critical that institutions of higher education respond to these incidents.

“The primary mission of higher education is to educate our young people and position them for future leadership roles in our society,” Williamson said. “If [those in higher education] We cannot focus on it, the main institutional mission is disrupted.

According to research conducted by Boston University in 2021, between 2013 and 2021, rates of depression and anxiety among college students increased by 135% and 110%, respectively. Many factors may be contributing to this increase, including financial problems, the pandemic, and a general sense of danger, said John Richter, director of public policy for the Mental Health Association of New York State (MHANYS). MHANYS has been working to raise awareness of mental health in the state since 1960.

But most of the proposed causal reasons for this increase require further study, Richter said. Experts know that mental illness is being blamed for mass shootings, furthering the stigma and misunderstanding of mental health.

“Most people with mental illness are no more dangerous than anyone else,” Richter said. “In fact, people with mental illness are 11 times more likely to be victims of a violent crime than to be perpetrators.”

While most college presidents say providing mental health support to students is a priority, lack of resources and funding, negative stigma, and overall ignorance of identifying mental illness can prevent students and faculty on campus from accessing needed support during trials. times. That’s why MHANYS and Williamson’s Task Force strive to provide institutions with a better understanding and sustainable resources to keep college campuses healthy and thriving in the dark.

Dr.  Laura Erickson-Schroth, Chief Medical Officer of the JED Foundation.Dr. Laura Erickson-Schroth, Chief Medical Officer of the JED Foundation.Dr. Laura Erickson-Schroth, chief medical officer of the JED Foundation, a nonprofit working to protect the emotional well-being of young adults and teens, said students don’t necessarily have to experience a traumatic event on their own campus to be affected. .

“Hearing about violence in other schools or seeing it on the news can trigger difficult emotions, especially for young people who have experienced violence in the past. That’s why it’s important for all schools to offer support and resources after these types of events,” Erickson-Schroth said. “Communities of care are essential to support young people in tragedies. Even outside of tragedies, caring communities have been shown to improve mental health and reduce suicide among young people. When teens and young adults feel supported by their school community, they have a safety net to catch them if they fall.”

Erickson-Schroth said it’s important for institutions to acknowledge that violent incidents have occurred and tell them what support resources are available.

Preparing the campus community for the occurrence of violence can occur through well-conducted, calm, emergency drills and cooperation between campus and local police forces. Those two things can go a long way toward addressing the fear and anxiety surrounding mass shootings, Williamson said.

“The more help we can give people, the better they are able to cope psychologically and psychosocially with the trauma in their lives, the better they will come out of it,” Williamson said.

Institutions that offer peer counseling have had great success helping their students struggle with mental health, Richter said. The Peer Assistance Program at the University at Albany, started in 1970, trains volunteer student counselors who meet with other students.

“They are not replacements for advisors, but. [peers] can be very helpful, especially in directing students to help,” Richter said. “They have proven to be very helpful for students who are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression at an early stage of recognition and bring the idea of ​​help to people before things become clinical.”

Richter agreed that thorough emergency plans can be key to helping a campus navigate potentially traumatic events. Overall, more education and training needs to be done earlier, at the K-12 level, Richter said, so more people know how to not only recognize urgent mental health issues, but also encourage help-seeking behavior.

“Training helps build your confidence in what to say and how to say it. “Often when someone is struggling, even to the point of being suicidal, a lot of people feel that something is wrong, but they don’t know what to do,” Richter said. “But when they’re trained and approached, it’s often the first time [that other] person sharing with another human being what’s going on with them and how desperate they really are – it breaks the silence.’

Liann Herder can be reached at

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