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February 3, 2011

Mental Health in the Classroom:

Is a student distressed, dangerous? It’s tough to tell

According to Robert Gallagher, adjunct associate professor in the School of Education and former vice chancellor for Student Affairs, it may be difficult to determine which students might cross the line from distressed to dangerous.

There are several types of behavior that should be of particular concern, said Gallagher, who was director of the University Counseling Center for 25 years.


One concern is the inappropriately angry, non-psychotic student whose reaction is disproportionate to the circumstance. “Somebody has given them a bad grade. Somebody has done something that’s cost them their job, somebody embarrassed them. They were treated unfairly. They ruminate about it, they can’t get over it; they feel it very personally,” Gallagher said.

“Occasionally, they are dangerous. Those are people that friends are more likely to identify,” he said, although an adviser or faculty member with whom the student has a close relationship also may recognize the student’s problem.

If an appeal to reason has no effect on the anger level, alerting the administration is the most appropriate solution, he advised.

Bizarre behavior

Another concern are the students who do not seem to have mental illness, but behave bizarrely: Students who ask inappropriate questions or act strangely. “Almost everybody knows this type of behavior when they see it,” Gallagher said, citing a former student who had the odd habit of removing his shoes and socks, then powdering his feet in class.

“The give-away sign is: Is the student making the faculty member or other students feel anxious or uncomfortable and even frightened? Those are the ones who are most worrisome. Here again this should be brought to the attention of a responsible person on campus,” Gallagher advised.


“Another concern is the stalker, the student who is obsessive about someone,” Gallagher said. More people are killed by stalkers than in the kind of mass shooting that occurred in Arizona, he said. “Last year, in the 320 schools I surveyed, there were seven students killed by obsessive pursuers. That would extrapolate to close to 50 across all colleges. Also,168 students were physically injured. Even these numbers do not reflect the true number who are harmed because many of these cases do not come to the attention of counseling center staffs,” Gallagher said. Stalkers aren’t always students pursuing other students, he said. “Faculty and staff are certainly not immune from this happening to them.”

Frightening behavior

The fourth area of concern is the student who goes beyond eccentric behavior into frightening behavior, Gallagher said.

A student might talk or write about a plan to take action against someone or against a number of people for what they represent, he said. “You often find a past history of impulsive or violent behavior. You can detect this sometimes in written papers or overheard remarks about wanting to harm someone. While there often is evidence of past problems, sometimes it’s hard to learn about that” because of privacy issues, he said.

Even if such a student is identified, unless there is a direct threat it’s difficult to demand that the student get treatment, Gallagher said, adding that it’s hard for counselors to help someone who is uncooperative. “Counseling centers are really best suited to the student who wants to get help,” he said.

How to help

Concerned faculty or staff should make a referral to the counseling center, providing the student’s name and situation.

“There are a lot of students who don’t come in on their own, so good referrals are important,” Gallagher said.

“If it’s someone you think is suicidal or seems seriously depressed or vulnerable in some way, you may be afraid that talking to them about it will push them over the edge,” he said. “The fact is that almost all students when they’re in trouble appreciate it when somebody expresses concern for them.”

Honesty is the best policy when encouraging a student to seek counseling. “You should always be clear to the student about why you are making the referral.” Sending a student to the counseling center under false pretenses — for instance, sending a student to the counseling center for career counseling when the concern really is related to behavior — puts the mental health professionals in a bind. “Already trust is compromised. You need to be honest,” he urged.

Accompanying the student to the counseling center may be appropriate, especially for an anxious student or one who is reluctant to go, Gallagher said.

Encouraging students to stick with the counseling also is important, he said. If a student who goes to counseling reports that the initial session didn’t go well, “tell the student to stick with it. Hang in there, it takes a while.”

A listening ear

Most students who approach a faculty member or other adult will not need professional counseling, Gallagher noted. A student who is tearful about a broken relationship or a death or who expresses anxiety or anger often can be helped by someone who simply is willing to listen and help guide them through whatever the concern is.

However, if there is uncertainty about whether more than a good ear is needed, consultation with a mental health professional in the counseling center may be called for, he said.

—Peter Hart & Kimberly K. Barlow

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