Thursday, April 19, 2007

Expert Advice for School Officials (or: What to Do When We're More Irritable and Angry Than Usual)


Expert suggests team approach

What could school officials do?

In an interview Wednesday, [psychologist Robert A.] Fein offered several suggestions:

  • Disseminate clear descriptions of behavior that is and is not acceptable. Codes of conduct can help.
  • Offer resources with no risk of losing privacy — typically chaplains, counselors, health care practitioners or ombudsmen.
  • Create a system that can deal both formally and informally with any concerns that are raised. As an example, Fein said that schools could link dormitory residential advisers, peer counselors and health care practitioners with campus police and department heads, among others. Many systems will need some outside expertise on occasion for assessment and management.
  • Strengthen training and networking for all these participants in a coordinated response.
  • Initiate more active investigation when someone is raising concerns. If people on campus were concerned that Cho was dangerous, did he have a gun?

What about the parents?

"Federal privacy laws make calling the parents really difficult," Fein said. "But there are always ways to have a team assess what is reported by the bystanders, and devise a way for someone to come in for some level of consultation."

Students could be told, "You are scaring some people on campus who know you,” Fein said. “... We would like to talk with you about how things are going. ... I will drop by the dorm every evening at five. ... Your work seems to have dropped off suddenly. ... Your behavior is seen as unreasonably disruptive. ... We are concerned about you."

Educational institutions, Fein said, need standard protocols about when and how they will assess problematic behavior and when they might require people to take time off. [embellishments mine]


While I was having my morning coffee, I turned on the TV (yes, I know: always a mistake). On Fox News (YES, I KNOW: an even BIGGER mistake), a reported positioned outside the post office where Cho sent his package to NBC News (now THAT's on-the-beat reporting!) offered her two cents on what is being called Cho's "manifesto". She called him a "monster." Others, including the authors of the MSNBC report I quote above, have lumped Cho in with other "shooters," describing his behavior only in the context of previous school shooters--not within the real--and nuanced, and sensitive, and medical--context of what is the obvious and real cause of Cho's behavior: mental illness.

The closest thing I've heard to "sensitivity" was also on Fox, where Cho does, sometimes, get referred to as a man with a "sick, twisted mind."

But still, that "sickness" is demonized.

I suppose I should expect this from our media. But I'd hoped that the officials at UNO would not effectively detach themselves from the real problem by asserting that there's "nothing we can do."

There are things we can do--particularly on school campuses, where our close interactions with students out us on the frontlines in terms of recognizing and responding to undiagnosed mental illnesses.

In New Orleans--in the midst of our ongoing trauma--where mild and severe depression rates are double what they were before the storm, suicide rates are up 300%, and just 1/3 the number of mental health care professionals have returned--a clearly articulated way to respond to mental illness is really necessary. That response--those guidelines--must be both ethical and empathetic.

To illustrate the problem in New Orleans: this from a baseline study performed by the Harvard Medical School and released in the Fall of '06:

Post-traumatic stress reactions
*A substantial proportion of respondents reported having emotional problems related to their experiences in the hurricane.
*The proportion of respondents who screen positive for a clinically significant anxiety or mood disorder was double the number in a comparable survey carried out two years before the hurricane.
*A full one-fourth (25.3 percent) of survey respondents reported having nightmares about their experiences in the hurricane in the past month.
*Nightmares were reported by 49.6 percent of the respondents who were pre-hurricane residents of New Orleans City.
*While more than half (51.8 percent; 79.4 percent of those from New Orleans City) reported being more irritable or angry than usual. [I should share this with Simon--it may help explain my own increase in anger and irritability!]


To think: officials at UNO could have the opportunity to really do something about this. And then to know... it ain't gonna happen. It's enough to give a girl some serious blues... to make her more irritable/angry than ususal!!!

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