When a student is mentally ill

On Community College Spotlight, I write about the dilemma faced by officials at Pima Community College in Arizona.  Student Jared Lee Loughner was disrupting classes and showing signs of mental illness. Instructors and students feared what he’d do, but he hadn’t attacked anyone. Yet.

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  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    Sounds like three problems.
    Who are we to judge?
    Legally allowed to make some kind of report?
    If we did, then what? Is he bad enough for involuntary institutionalization?

  2. Belinda Gomez says:

    The family hasn’t issued a statement, but just as in Virginia, how did this guy get a gun and did his family know? I’m all for the 2nd amendment, but I think this man (just like the VaTech shooter) was clearly disturbed, and while the community college tried to do the right thing, we don’t know if the family actually got him any help.

  3. Cranberry says:

    Did the family know that he was disturbed? They may have been in denial, or they may have seen his problems as eccentricity. Perhaps they are eccentric themselves, and thus didn’t recognize the problem.

    Neighbors and former classmates from nearby Mountain View High School described Loughner and his parents as loners who rarely spoke even to their immediate neighbors.

    “You try to say something, they’d just ignore you and turn around and walk back into the house,” said Ron Johnson, 60, a retiree who lives directly opposite the Loughner’s tan, one-storey home. “The kid – I never talked to him. He acted just like his parents and ignored you.”


  4. CarolineSF says:

    People with mentally ill family members know that it’s not as easy as simply being able to *get* the person help. (And it’s safe to say that everyone has one or more mentally ill family members, though not everyone may know it, or know it yet.)

    The book “Crazy” by Pete Earley provides an exceptionally thorough view of both a family’s struggles to “get help” for a resistant mentally ill adult and the reasons for the dysfunctional state of our mental health system.

  5. Michael E. Lopez says:

    There are very few things that I strike a “who are we to judge” pose on. Normally, I’m perhaps a little too willing to toss around ill-considered judgments.

    But mental illness is one of those rare places where I don’t see who we are to judge.

    I’ll tell you what though — I think we can and should lock people up for purely practical reasons. Some people simply cannot function in our society, and that means they shouldn’t be treated like normal members of that society. There
    is no need to get all evaluative as to the normatively charged deviance of their condition.

  6. I’m a prof, and while I’ve never had a student sufficiently disruptive for me to feel endangered, I have to admit the potential for that situation sometimes keeps me up nights.

    On my father’s campus, there was a student who had the university essentially take a restraining order out against him after he threatened a chem prof’s life. I think the student was allowed back on campus a few years later, not sure if he had to have proof of treatment for his problems to do that.

  7. There’s a seventh grader in one of my classes that strikes me as seriously disturbed. He has a very, very strange affect. He laughs for no apparent reason. He’s really quiet and seems to be off in his own world at all times. He scares me. Yet a colleague, taken by his dopey quietness, views him as one of the sweetest kids in the seventh grade.

  8. Richard Aubrey says:

    Michael, You can’t put the potential nutcases away without judging them as potential nutcases. Problem is, to one person (most likely one in the next time zone over) the evidence is simply of a different choice of lifestyle. To a neighbor, it’s terrifying.
    Who wins?

  9. I’ll tell you what though — I think we can and should lock people up for purely practical reasons. Some people simply cannot function in our society, and that means they shouldn’t be treated like normal members of that society. There
    is no need to get all evaluative as to the normatively charged deviance of their condition.

    If humans were virtuous, I’d agree. I think the history of mental institutions tell a different tale. There are good reasons for making it difficult for people to involuntarily commit an inconvenient relative.

    Yes, there are people who are dangeriously disturbed, and who are a danger to others. There are also people who may behave in odd ways, who will never harm anyone. Distinguishing between the two types is very difficult. Psychiatrists aren’t accurate fortune tellers. Enough paroled felons have reoffended to make that clear.

  10. Cardinal Fang says:

    Ben F,

    let’s say that your seventh grader is mentally disordered in some way. That doesn’t mean he is dangerous or violent. He can be both mentally disordered and a sweet kid; the one does not preclude the other. Do you have any reason at all to believe he is violent?

  11. This is a hard one to call. Having taught in a school with mentally disturbed students, I know that they have lots of rights and just because they are beligerent and act out does not provide just cause to remove them from the school setting.

    I had a student who had some issues and when I tried to get help for him, I came upon one brick wall after another. The sad thing being that the parents saw no need to do anything for the child. I think Loughner parents may be the same type.

  12. Cardinal Fang says:

    Let’s not be so quick to attack Loughner’s parents. Much evidence now emerging says that he recently began acting erratically, but before that, he had seemingly been just another slacker. Loughner is 22. Parents of adult children with health issues have very few rights to force their adult children into treatment.

    If Lougher is indeed a paranoid schizophrenic as some suggest, that is a disease that emerges in young adulthood.

  13. Ponderosa says:


    Yes, in fact the kid told an aide that his science project would involve shooting people with different kinds of guns and timing how long it would take for them to die.

    I firmly beleive that the really mentally sick kids can be identified at age 12. Every year I have a handful that my gut tells me, “sociopath” or “schizophrenic”. But we have counselors who don’t even know what “sociopath” means, or who seem trained not to look for serious disorders at this age. And everyone seems loathe to “label” kids. Since I’m not a psychiatrist, I don’t feel entitled to press my hunches.

    I have raised an alarm about this one particular scary kid. Crickets.

  14. Ponderosa says:

    Oops –I’m using a different computer. “Ponderosa” = “Ben F”.

  15. Mike Curtis says:

    Millions of mentally atypical people roaming the public sphere did not kill anybody the other day. This begs the question, should we round them up and control them anyway? Some people are not willing to accept that sometimes, a spontaneous destructive event cannot be prevented.

    The best we can hope for is to be content with less a than perfect society where each person is responsible for protecting themself at all times.

  16. Reagan led the charge to dismantle the institutions, promising more humane community-based care centers. These never materialized. So we have legions of brain-sick homeless and/or lost people wandering around, a few of whom buy semi-automatic weapons. I vote for raising taxes, providing national health care for all, including the mentally ill. Most could remain in non-restrictive environments, receive medication and monitoring. Some should be confined.

  17. Richard Aubrey says:

    Ben F.
    Reagan wasn’t even governor when I was studying psychology and the push for deinstitutionalization began. Remember “Titticutt Follies”? Schizophrenia was a “lifestyle choice” in the words of some of the pros.
    Get a new villain. This one’s worn out.

  18. “Get a new villain. This one’s worn out.”

    It’s Sarah Palin’s fault.

  19. While it’s unusual, the symptoms of schizophrenia can begin in childhood. Here’s a story about child schizophrenics: