Tech death puts spotlight on campus mental health services

12:00 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017 Education
STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Mourner set out flowers at a memorial for Georgia Tech student Scout Schultz Sunday, September 17, 2017, In Atlanta GA.  

Georgia Tech student Sarat E. Lawal said she and her friends usually turn to each other when academic rigors gets stressful.

“You need someone to share your struggles with,” Lawal, 20, a fourth-year materials science and engineering student, said the day after a campus vigil, for a student killed in an apparent suicide-by-cop, turned violent.

Tech, she said, could do more to help students deal with the academic pressures there. Lawal talked about it in a student lounge, in the same building as Georgia Tech’s Counseling Center for students.

The circumstances surrounding the death of the student, Scout Schultz, have started a conversation — including criticism that Georgia Tech and other colleges and universities statewide don’t adequately support students suffering from anxiety, depression and mental illness. Some are pushing for additional counselors, psychologists and mental health education for campus police. The officer who shot Schultz hadn’t undergone Crisis Intervention Training, which trains police on how to handle mentally ill suspects.

The Georgia Tech Progressive Student Alliance has demanded several changes on campus such as hiring more counselors and making its counseling center larger and more visible. They’re planning a rally next week and demonstrations in front of president G.P. “Bud” Peterson’s office if he doesn’t indicate he’ll meet their demands.

“I haven’t gotten the mental health care I need in years because Georgia Tech’s counseling department is so understaffed.” said Jessica Struempf, a Tech student majoring in literature, media and communication. “I can’t imagine what people who are struggling with mental health on top of marginalization on campus might be going through.”

(AJC file photo)
Georgia Tech president Bud Peterson.

Tech president G.P. “Bud” Peterson announced late Saturday he’s created a fund, which has already received a $1 million contribution, for mental health initiatives and wellness program. He’s also created teams that will look for ways to improve campus mental health services.

Each four-year public college and university in Georgia has counseling services and crisis intervention teams, officials said. So, too, do private campuses such as Emory University and Spelman College.

Others, though, say it’s not the role of a college or university to provide such services. Students and parents should be responsible for seeking out counseling on their own, some say

University System of Georgia officials do not keep suicide statistics, a spokesman said.

Georgia Tech police Officer Tyler Beck fatally wounded Schultz, 21, a fourth-year engineering student from Gwinnett County, on Sept. 16, shortly before midnight, near a campus parking lot. Schultz pleaded for the four officers to “shoot me” as he walked toward them, holding a multi-purpose tool that included a small blade. Beck is on paid administrative leave, pending the results of a state investigation into the shooting.

Schultz, who was president of the Georgia Tech Pride Alliance, a organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and asexual students, attempted suicide two years ago, Schultz’s mother told the AJC.

A Georgia Tech spokeswoman said last week it could not discuss whether Schultz received any mental health services, citing federal privacy regulations. Schultz’s father said he took Schultz to several counseling sessions after the suicide attempt.

Several mental health professions and students say colleges and universities here are trying to help students, but they need more money from state and federal leaders.

That, they say, is a challenge for an area often overlooked by lawmakers. “It’s mental health,” quipped Matt Vignieri, a school psychologist in the Hall County school system.

Georgia Tech student Maggie Kelley talks to a classmate about a table she and friends organized for students to write messages of support for the family of Scout Schultz and the Georgia Tech Police Department. (ERIC STIRGUS / ESTIRGUS@AJC.COM)

Vignieri said he’s talked to some state lawmakers about his desire to see more money for psychologists on college campuses, but he’s had little traction.

State Rep. Joyce Chandler, R-Grayson, said she met last year with several campus counseling officials and would like to see additional funding for their work.

“I’m not sure if we can ever do enough,” said Chandler, a member of the house’s higher education committee.

Many of Georgia’s largest campuses have facilities for students to get counseling at no cost. Most offer similar services ranging from walk-in crisis counseling to medication plans to couples counseling to group sessions. The University of Georgia said it has several wellness courses that include topics such as “Adjusting to College.”

The services have some limits. For example, Emory has a limit of seven sessions before counselors recommend other resources that may include services off campus, according to its website.

Georgia Tech’s counseling center was open for several hours after Schultz was shot for students who witnessed the incident, a Tech spokesman said. Tech officials shared information several times last week about its services.

Some students say the center is woefully understaffed. Tech, they say, needs at least 27 counselors, one for about every 1,000 students. The center has 18 people in its office to treat and counsel students, officials said. It served 1,777 students last school year. The center is run by interim director Mack Bowers, a licensed psychologist who’s worked at Georgia Tech for 24 years, officials said.

Andrew Melissas, 22, a fifth-year civil engineering student, said he signed up online for counseling during his first year at Tech because he was having difficulty dealing with the stress of transitioning to college. He said he was told the first available session was a month away.

“The services are there, but it’s the quantity of those services (that’s lacking),” said Melissas, who said he was diagnosed with anxiety and depression in May.

By all accounts, Georgia Tech, consistently ranked as one of the nation’s top public colleges and universities, is a stressful academic environment. Students, faculty, administrators and alumni are all aware of the pressure.

Last year, Tech began an initiative called “Tech Ends Suicide Together.” Last school year, Georgia Tech’s Student Alumni Association awarded its annual “Gift to Tech” toward that effort with a $49,036 donation. The association’s “Gift to Tech” for the 2014-15 school year went to the counseling center, $36,000. Tech said it’s trained more than 1,200 students, faculty and staff since 2014 how to recognize and help someone contemplating suicide.

Vignieri said some students are reluctant to seek help. Many colleges and students, he said, embrace a “sink or swim” mentality that does not accept mental or emotional distress.

Vignieri said of students who may not get the help they need, “The scary thing is at school, you could do harm to so many people.”

Chandler wants to see colleges spend at least 30 minutes during freshman orientation explaining the services offered in counseling centers. That, she hopes, would reduce the stigma around mental illness.

“We may not be able to stop someone from taking their life, but we can do more to try to prevent (others from considering) it,” she said.

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