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Counseling Services Act as Support

Heights Senior Staff

Published: Monday, January 24, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01

When a tragedy such as this month's shooting in Tucson shakes the nation, those who were close to the incident inevitably ask themselves why they didn't see it coming.

At Boston College, the campus community is designed to provide multiple layers of support for any one student, in part to prevent against such incidents, said Thomas McGuinness, associate vice president and director of University Counseling.

"There's a network of caring and referral that exists out there," he said.

While BC might strike most students as an unlikely site for such an incident, McGuinness said that students at Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University, and even Columbine High School likely thought the same.

"What we try to do is decrease the likelihood that it would happen here," he said. "The best way to do that is to have a strong community of caring and vigilance."

Roughly 1,300 students speak with University Counseling each year, McGuinness said. While he said that most are self-referred and come in on their own, many are also referred by other campus offices, such as Campus Ministry, the Office of Residential Life (Reslife), or the Office of the Dean of Student Development (ODSD).

If a faculty member or student observes that one of their classmates is having a difficult time coping with a particular issue, McGuinness encouraged them to seek out advice from their Resident Assistant, a University Counselor, or from another BC official.

"Its important that when there's any kind of question that students consult with someone here," McGuinness said, adding that it can be with regard to any issue - be it depression, drug use, or an eating disorder.

When a student goes to speak to a University counselor, whether it is in regard to their own life or that of a fellow student, the meeting is completely confidential, McGuinness said.

Obvious signs that someone may be in mental distress include someone making explicit statements about wanting to injure themselves or others, McGuinness said. But, he said students should also be aware of the more subtle signals, such as a change in someone's daily routine.

"Softer signs are people whose behavior has changed … [or who] say things that suggest they don't want to be around anymore," McGuinness said.

There is a measure within the University conduct policy that allows administrators to remove a student from BC if it is deemed by the University Counseling Office that the student may pose a threat to themselves or to others.

"People have made remarks. We have a protocol for that," McGuinness said.

However, he said that the University has rarely needed to resort to that measure. In many cases where a student needs to leave the campus for mental health-related issues, he said that the student in question often leaves school voluntarily to seek further medical assistance and counseling.

"What we want to do is not be heavy-handed," McGuinness said.

Recognizing that someone is dealing with mental illness can be tricky, said Alexa Veenema, a professor in the psychology department whose research deals with looking into how the brain controls behavior with hopes of advancing the understanding of mental disorders and social dysfunction.

"It takes a very long time before a mental illness is diagnosed," Veenema said. "It can be present for a number of years before it is discovered or can be diagnosed."

In addition, she said that the sensitivity that is given to mental illnesses often renders them difficult to recognize, even among close friends or roommates.

"There is a stigma about mental disorders as compared to more peripheral disorders," Veenema said. "It's really hard to recognize that people require medical care."

While it is difficult to predict whether a person's mental illness will lead to violence, she said that students could all benefit from gaining an awareness and acquiring the ability to recognize someone who may need medical assistance.

"Awareness is what students should be looking for - how can you recognize someone with a mental disorder and what is the time frame to say, ‘Okay, now I have to do something about it,'" Veenema said. She added that because many mental disorders are often diagnosed in early adulthood, college is an appropriate time to educate students in their recognition.

Still, McGuinness is optimistic that the networks that exist around BC will prevent any serious incidents.

"There are so many people who have daily contact with [others]," he said. "Roommates, hall-mates, RAs, faculty – there are a lot of opportunities to observe behavior that may be problematic."

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