Campus-community mental health eyed

Life in a small town like Pullman can seem a little … well, mundane, even boring. Yet in times of crisis, the unseen benefits of such a close-knit community have a way of becoming more apparent. The comprehensive mental health care system available for students at WSU is one example of such quiet collaboration.

Barbara Hammond, director of WSU Counseling and Testing Services for nearly 20 years, believes it is Pullman’s small town atmosphere that helps provide an interconnected safety net for students not typical of many universities.

In fact, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law — an advocacy group for people with mental health problems located in Washington D.C. — recently released a list of best practices to help colleges and universities better deal with student mental health issues. According to Hammond, most of the 48 recommendations are already in place at WSU.
Online @

In their policy, the Bazelon Center notes that nearly 44 percent of 94,806 students surveyed in the 2006 National College Health Assessment reported they “felt so depressed in the past year that it was difficult to function” and 9 percent had considered suicide. The Bazelon Center says that although there is wide agreement about universities encouraging students to seek counseling when feeling depressed or overwhelmed, there is little consensus on how schools should respond in times of crisis — especially when there is a chance of harm to self or others.

The Center offers these guiding principles, in addition to specific recommendations, outlining a model policy for colleges and universities:
• Acknowledge but not stigmatize mental health problems
• Make suicide prevention a priority
• Encourage students to seek help or treatment when needed
• Ensure personal information is kept confidential
• Allow students to continue their education as normally as possible through reasonable accommodations
• Refrain from discrimination against students with mental illness, including punitive action toward those in crisis

WSU currently handles these issues through the Counseling and Testing Services (CTS) Office, located in room 280 of the Lighty Building. The staff of eight Ph.D. trained psychologists and two licensed counselors offers a range of psychological services — including counseling and psychotherapy in the Counseling Center, workshops and outreach programs, crisis service, and psychological testing — to all WSU students, faculty, and staff. Online @

The CTS office also collaborates with Bruce Wright, psychiatrist and director of WSU Health and Wellness Services. “All the doctors at Health and Wellness are very knowledgeable about mental health issues,” said Hammond, “so we can put together a very good team for students who need medication and/or therapy. We also collaborate with Pullman Regional Hospital and their provision of emergency mental health services. The hospital is very responsive to us as the students are such a big part of Pullman and affect many businesses here,” she said. “Their needs have to be attended to.”

The police department is involved too and will access the CTS system if they encounter a student problem. “The police officers will call and report an incident sometimes,” said Hammond. “They might say that a student was pretty shaken up and the officer had suggested he or she contact us.”

Faculty Outreach

In an average year, around 10 percent of the WSU student population seeks consultation at the CTS office. About 1700 different individuals were seen during the past 2006-2007 school year. “The counseling center tries to be very visible,” said Hammond. “We have a very close relationship with the residence halls and sororities and fraternities — and we want to increase our visibility with faculty members.” Since the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech in April, Hammond and her staff have been developing a broad campaign aimed at providing contact information for all university personnel who may have concerns about student mental health.

“We want people to know that we are here and we are responsive and available for consultation at any time,” she said. “Our crisis response is right now. We currently have 5 or 6 hours of walk-in time available at the counseling center, but we can be reached by phone or in person anytime day or night. If a faculty member encounters a student who is in a crisis — feeling hopeless and distraught or threatening to hurt him or herself — they should call and walk the student over to the center,” said Hammond. “Sometimes we have even walked over to where the student was. It’s at that point of crisis where someone is most willing to engage and …accept help. We want them to come in as soon as possible.”

The daytime number for the Counseling Center is 509-335-4511. In the evenings, a crisis answering service is used which offers phone counseling and will contact the Counseling Center to provide immediate human contact as well.  That number is 509-335-2159. If threats are being made toward other people, first call 911.

Voluntary and involuntary treatment

Many of these precautions were in place at Virginia Tech and it still resulted in tragedy.  “They tried to help him (Seung-Hui Cho) …with counseling…but he didn’t continue with it,” said Hammond. “Counseling is not a cure-all, but with regular meetings you can better monitor a person’s progress. We can’t take away someone’s liberty — involuntarily hospitalize them — in Washington State without there being an imminent risk of harm to self or others,” she said. “Imminent risk means within 24 hours.”

“It is very difficult when someone is going through a bad time psychologically,” explained Hammond. “They may look frightening to others — but it is very hard to distinguish odd from dangerous. No one can make that distinction as well as we would like to. It is almost impossible to tell …what is really going on … when someone doesn’t want to collaborate with you on making things different … in their life. “It occasionally happens that we do have to involuntarily hospitalize a student,” she said, “but it requires a lot of evidence.” Click here to listen to segments of the interview with Barbara Hammond.

Though the university currently has a policy in place for working with students who request a voluntary leave of absence for mental health reasons, there is no procedure for enforcing an involuntary leave. Hammond — together with WSU Attorney General, Toni Ursich, Director of Health and Wellness Services, Bruce Wright and acting Dean of Students, Lucila Loera — is currently developing a process for how that might be handled at WSU.

For information on other counseling services around WSU, see Online @

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