Counseling Center reaches out to prevent violence,self-injury: Variables often go beyond mental illness

Nathan Zoschke

Is mental illness the real culprit?

The string of recent mass shootings has led to questions about how violent behavior can be prevented through better counseling and mental health services.

According to UMKC Counseling Center research, out of 716 clients last year, approximately three percent indicated that they had intentionally caused serious injury to another person in their life. Eight percent has made a suicide attempt.

“Violent behavior, harming someone else may be ‘related’ to mental illness but not ‘predicted’ by mental illness,” said Marita Barkis, Director of Counseling. “In risk assessment or ‘threat assessment’, one needs to focus on a variety of variables.  I would never bet on mental illness alone.  There is a difference.”

For students who may be dealing with mental illnesses, the Counseling Center has many services available such as individual counseling which is available free for students up to eight times every academic year.

Barkis mentioned group therapy is also offered and proves to be very effective for many types of mental illness.

Workshops and stress reduction activities are also available.

However, some conditions may be more severe than the services can handle.

“If a condition is beyond the scope of our services, we will help students find appropriate referrals in the community,” Barkis said. “We also work with students to find medication referrals either through Student Health within their scope of practice or in the community with medical doctors or psychiatrists.”

The Counseling Center mainly deals with issues related to relationships, anxiety and depression.

“These are in varying degrees of severity in their presentation of symptoms so the definition of serious may be open to varied definitions,” she said.

However, if a student were to come to the Counseling Center complaining about a student or teacher, the center would take actions to explore the source of those feelings.

“We would explore what ‘hating’ means to them in terms of actions, thoughts, plans and cause, stress, coping, etc. Such comments happen in a context.  Part of therapy may be to help increase resources to cope with the situation, provide support or even promote means to advocacy,” she said. “We have an ethical obligation to check out intent to harm self or others.  Breaking confidentiality to report harm to self or others requires a high level of imminent threat.

According to Barkis, there is a Crisis Command Response Protocol for what would be done if there were a shooting on campus. Psychological and Health response is part of the Command Center.

“Our Counseling service staff would be called into action as would outside mental health resources such as the Red Cross Mental Health Crisis teams to support witnesses, families, first responders, injured victims, and other individuals experiencing trauma at various levels from the incident,” she said.

A Case Management Team has been on the campus long before Virginia tech. The team meets to share concerns about a students’ distress or behavior.

“Most often someone knows that someone is plotting,” Barkis said. “If that person comes forth with concern, there is a chance for prevention and intervention.”

However, when it comes to the one with the mental illness causing harm to others, signs may not always be seen right away.

“Cues like presenting a written document full of threats to others and if they talked about violent thoughts or mentioned suicidal thoughts mixed with possession or obsession with weapons would be higher threat signs and would be signs that would lead to more in-depth evaluation of ‘imminent harm,’” she said. However, violence is difficult to predict and a mental health diagnosis alone like depression is only one variable and not a good predictor. “

Knowledge of mental illness is not enough to know for certain whether the individual has the ability to cause harm. Therefore, the University conducts threat assessments.

“Threat assessment, really looking at one individual’s risk to do harm, involves gathering lots of information of which mental illness is one variable,” Barkis said. “Some others would include known acts of violence, access to weapons, talk of harming others, odd and disruptive behaviors. Also mix mental health and substance abuse, the risks may go up.”

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