Many of us will remember where we were and what we were doing on April 16, 2007, when we learned about the unspeakable tragedy of the campus murders and subsequent suicide at Virginia Tech.
At the time, I was executive director of NASPA. I was grabbing lunch at a restaurant with the incoming president of the board of directors, Dr. Jan Walbert, vice president for student affairs at Arcadia University. I was looking forward to a scheduled meeting with her university president in the afternoon, in which I would give her “boss” a sense of the importance and far-reaching influence of Dr. Walbert’s volunteer position with NASPA.
The tragedy at Virginia Tech altered the trajectory of Dr. Walbert’s year as president of the board of directors. Within weeks after the mass shooting, Dr. Walbert was giving testimony at a congressional hearing in response to their request for guidance on what campuses could do regarding effective emergency preparedness with the potential of increasing the safety of students and the campus community.
I say “potential” because it’s not possible to predict or prevent violence. Indeed, within the year, another tragedy would occur at Northern Illinois University. What can be done is to provide requested resources in order for mental health professionals to be as accessible as possible to the increasing number of students who need and seek help. What we were reminded of in the wake of these campus shootings is that the median age of onset for mental illness is in the range of late teens through the early 20s, with young adults aged 18-25 years having the highest prevalence of any mental illness, and this doesn’t take into account the effects of a yearlong pandemic.
In an Inside Higher Ed survey of student affairs leaders conducted by Gallup in 2020:
- 78 percent of student affairs leaders said the number of campus visits to mental health professionals had ‘increased a lot’ in the last five years, and
- 63 percent said the same for the number of students on prescription medicine for mental health issues.
When these leaders were asked about the issues on which they had spent a significant amount of time during the past year, 93 percent at public institutions and 96 percent at private institutions listed student mental health.
Even before the pandemic, mental health had been an increasing issue for college and university students for more than five years. When students return to campuses, their need for services may be greater than ever before, and the need will have to be met. No college or university wants to experience what Virginia Tech went through during the cruel month of April 2007.