A Philosopher's Blog

Troubled Student

Posted in Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 13, 2011
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Jared Loughner is the accused shooter in the terrible incident in Arizona. Before that he was apparently a troubled student at a community college.

Since I am a professor, people have asked me if I have ever had students like that. While I have never had a student go on to shoot a politician, I have had students who were clearly disturbed or troubled by psychological issues. In some cases, these students were able to function reasonably well and they sometimes asked some very interesting questions or brought a rather unusual, but intriguing, perspective to various matters. In other cases, the students were actually rather scary and made the other students afraid with their behavior. Over my years in academics, I have seen or heard of students at various schools actually getting to the point where the police had to intervene, sometimes physically. In some cases, these students were actually legally banned from returning to campus or even ended up in jail.

In the light of the shooting, people might wonder why such students do not get locked up or forced into some sort of treatment. There are, of course, various reasons.

One reason is that professors and universities are often very worried about law suits and are hence reluctant to take action against troublesome students until they become truly troublesome. It can also be difficult to distinguish between a student who is a bit odd from one who might be violent, at least initially, and to take action against a student without sufficient justification can be a legal mess.

A second reason is that it can be difficult to distinguish between a student who passionately holds unusual views from someone who might become violent. Very intelligent people are sometimes very odd (I had a professor who would hide behind the drapes in class and make strange noises-but he was very sharp) and hence it can be hard to discern between the harmless oddities and those who will cross over into actual violence. Obviously enough, most professors and college officials are not experts in mental illness and hence are generally not qualified to make evaluations-except when it is rather evident.

A third reason is that colleges are rather limited in their intervention powers-or are at least reluctant to intervene. People sometimes think that college works like high school, but this is not the case. If a student is disruptive, I have two basic tools: persuasion and calling the police.  Colleges are also different from high schools in a very important way: we are not dealing with legal minors and hence this limits what can be done. For example, calling the parents is not generally an option. College officials can, of course, suggest counseling and can get the police and other officials involved. However, students are generally legal adults and hence are free to do as they wish as long as they remain within the law.

A fourth reason is that college officials and professors are just like everyone else: they have other concerns to deal with and when it comes to disturbed students the main hope is that they will either settle down or go away. In the case of colleges, their main function is not to sort out which students are unstable and treat them. That seems to be a responsibility of the state.

While there are state mechanisms in place for dealing with mentally troubled people, they seem to need some improvement. While violent incidents do serve to illustrate the cracks and holes in the current system and lead to discussions about the system in the media, it seems that little is ever changed. After all, when an incident occurs, I always seem to hear all the same things I heard after the last incident. I predict that when the next incident takes place we will see yet another rehash of the same comments.

Of course, dealing with such people does seem rather problematic. One obvious problem is balancing the rights of individuals against the need for community safety. While we do want dangerous individuals dealt with, due care must be taken not to violate rights in the name of security.

Another obvious problem is funding. While funding for things relating to defense and terrorism has been quite good, the funding for treating people with mental illnesses or emotional problems tends to be lacking. In general it seems that the matter of emotional/mental problems is largely left to individuals-at least until a criminal action is committed. From a practical standpoint there is the usual concern: would the cost of dealing effectively with such people be worthwhile in terms of the harms prevented? We obviously live with the system as it is and generally seem to be content with it-at least between incidents.

A final obvious problem is the challenge of treatment. While we have advanced a bit beyond lobotomies and electroshock, our ability to deal with emotional and mental problems is still extremely limited. It can also be argued that our society and culture is highly damaging to people and that having a mentally healthy population would require significant changes to society.

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2 Responses

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  1. Asur said, on January 13, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    So long as someone acts within the law and makes no explicit indication that they intend to do otherwise, there is no justification for intervention.

    The question is whether existing law is adequate to deal with severe mental illness; I don’t think it is. Where I think it falls short is its lack of provision for compelling people showing signs of severe illness to submit to evaluation to see if that is actually the case — a trained professional can, with reasonable though not perfect accuracy, determine whether further evaluation is warranted after a relatively brief screening. I don’t see this sort of testing as a significant inconvenience to the testee, and presumably it would take a recommendation by family or authority (such as a teacher) to initiate the process.

    Here is a personal anecdote for why I think this is necessary: I had an adult relative who evinced incoherent thought and signs of hallucination. She did not perceive that anything was wrong, and refused to speak with a mental health professional. Due to the laws of the state, because she had not threatened herself or anyone else, we could not compel her to seek help. Some time after this, she killed herself.

    Everyone around her knew she was not sane, yet we had no recourse to save her.

    I absolutely support individual rights and freedoms; however, I see them in their full measure as belonging only to sane, moral members of society — these rights are granted by society to the individual for the benefit of the society through that individuals contribution; to the extent that that individual lacks sanity or morality, their contribution to society is destructive and society is thereby justified in abrogating their rights as an individual to that same extent.

  2. Miriam Sagan said, on February 5, 2011 at 6:58 pm

    Thank you. As a community college professor I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot.


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