Counseling Today, Features

Virginia Tech walks path to healing

Angela Kennedy October 1, 2007

As the first full semester since the mass shootings that rocked their campus last April 16 comes to a close, Virginia Tech students, staff and faculty are still attempting to recover. In the process, they are also finding new ways to honor the victims and working to ensure that a tragedy of that nature and magnitude never happens again.

Virginia Tech counselor educators Gerard Lawson and Nancy Bodenhorn, both members of the American Counseling Association, played instrumental roles in the immediate aftermath of the shootings and continue to guide students and fellow staff members through the healing process. “Things are different,” Lawson says. “It’s odd, because I doubt things will ever be the same, but a lot of that is OK. As counselors, we know the first year in particular brings challenges. Returning to school this semester, the first football game and the Concert for Virginia Tech were all positive emotional experiences, but they also keep the energy of that day alive. That is positive for most, but can be challenging for others.”

Lawson adds that after the investigation and recommendations made by the Virginia Tech Review Panel, the university is moving forward, though often with an abundance of caution. “Sometimes it feels like we are planning for the possibility of another meteor hitting. The odds are extraordinary, but we will do whatever we can,” he says. “We are in the early stages of (implementing) some prevention efforts for the whole campus in identifying and destigmatizing mental health issues. We are aware that the world is watching, and we want to get it right.”

This semester, Bodenhorn says, faculty members have been more alert to potential warning signs that a student may be troubled and, likewise, more vocal about sharing their concerns. “We, as faculty, need to be aware and communicative, but not extend into fear and overreaction. There has to be a balance,” she says.

Counselors on campus are hoping to partner with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to bring the Mental Illness: What a Difference a Friend Makes awareness campaign to Virginia Tech. The campaign, launched last year, encourages young adults to support friends who are struggling with mental illness. Additionally, Tom Brown, the university’s dean of students, is working with the campus counseling center to provide undergrad students with additional programs that promote well-being.

Bodenhorn says she is still recovering from the events of last April, both personally and professionally. In an interview with Counseling Today soon after the shootings, she explained how the act of smacking a tennis ball around the court was playing a major role in helping her relieve stress. And today? Well, she is fighting a mean case of tennis elbow, she says with a laugh.

“I have a much better respect for what trauma means to people now,” she says. “That’s important, both personally and professionally, to me. I’ve been reading a lot about resiliency and post-traumatic growth as opposed to post-traumatic stress. And despite my tennis elbow, it’s still very important for me to keep active and be aware of my physical health as well as my mental health.”

Celebrating life

Virginia Tech students, faculty, staff, family, friends and alumni are pledging volunteer service hours as part of VT-ENGAGE, the university’s new initiative to honor the victims of April 16 and reaffirm its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve). The challenge is for each student, faculty and staff member to participate in at least 10 hours of community service by graduation next May, with a total goal of 300,000 hours. The Virginia Tech Alumni Association challenged its members around the world to donate an additional 300,000 hours of community service, for a grand total of 600,000 hours. The stated purpose of VT-ENGAGE is to link the university and community through service.

“This (initiative) ties into the post-traumatic growth process,” Bodenhorn says. “They really want to establish meaning and provide a positive legacy for what happened as opposed to focusing on the grief and loss.” Bodenhorn has personally pledged to volunteer at a local women’s shelter.

“The idea is that every Tech student, faculty and alum agrees to volunteer for 10 hours over the next six months to make their community a better place,” Lawson says. “So many of the victims were volunteers and lived by community service, and I heard one of the parents saying that this was an effort to make them (the victims) as proud of us as we were of them.”

Cook Counseling Center

Immediately after the shootings at Virginia Tech, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine appointed a panel to review the events leading up to the tragedy; the handling of the incident by public safety officials, emergency services providers and the university; and the services subsequently provided to families, survivors, caregivers and the community. The panel conducted more than 200 interviews and reviewed thousands of pages of records. Following are some of the major findings pertaining to the mental health aspects of the case. (The full report is available online at www.vtreviewpanel.org/report/report/07_SUMMARY.pdf.)

“During Seung-Hui Cho’s junior year at Virginia Tech, numerous incidents occurred that were clear warnings of mental instability. Although various individuals and departments within the university knew about each of these incidents, the university did not intervene effectively. No one knew all the information and no one connected all the dots.”

“University officials in the office of Judicial Affairs, Cook Counseling Center, campus police, the Dean of Students and others explained their failures to communicate with one another or with Cho’s parents by noting their belief that such communications are prohibited by the federal laws governing the privacy of health and education records. In reality, federal laws and their state counterparts afford ample leeway to share information in potentially dangerous situations.” (See sidebar on new brochures explaining the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act on page 39.)

“The Cook Counseling Center and the university’s Care Team failed to provide needed support and services to Cho during a period in late 2005 and early 2006. The system failed for lack of resources, incorrect interpretation of privacy laws and passivity.” 

“Records of Cho’s minimal treatment at Virginia Tech’s Cook Counseling Center are missing.”

Subsequently, several changes in policy, procedure and staffing have taken place at the Cook Counseling Center. Licensed professional counselor and ACA member Sherry Lynch Conrad has been employed with the Cook Counseling Center for the past 17 years. According to Conrad, the counseling center has stepped up the number of support groups and outreach programs to staff and faculty and has added two weekly grief and trauma group counseling meetings for students. Over the summer, the counseling center also presented a symposium to help faculty and staff identify at-risk students. The Cook Counseling Center also received a federal grant to provide for a full-time case manager (that position has yet to be filled).

But Conrad notes that the most significant change since the report was issued is improved coordination of services with outside mental health agencies. The Cook Counseling Center’s psychiatric nurse practitioner now attends mental competency hearings that determine whether a patient/student should be released from involuntary psychiatric care hospitalization in the local area. The nurse is also informed of the campus counseling center’s role in the student’s follow-up treatment plan.

“In the past, one of the challenges was students being hospitalized and then released, and we didn’t know anything about it unless the student called us,” explains Conrad, adding that in many instances, students didn’t bother to follow up with the counseling center. That was determined to be the case with Cho. “It’s been a very loose system. But talking with other counseling centers, that is a perennial problem,” she says. “There often isn’t good communication between psychiatric hospitals and university counseling centers.”

Many times, Conrad says, a psychiatric care unit will advise patients to continue treatment with an outpatient counseling program. With students, the hospital will recommend that they follow up with counselors at the university counseling center within 48 hours. “But (in the past), we at the counseling center may not know that we were part of the plan,” she says. Having a counseling center representative present at the hearings should now ensure that these at-risk students don’t fall through the cracks, she says. Additionally, personnel at the Cook Counseling Center will now know in advance if the recommended follow-up treatment is beyond their capabilities, Conrad says, and can better prepare to refer the student to an outside resource or agency.

“If they are asking that we meet with a student several times a week, that is just something we cannot do because we don’t have that level of staffing,” she explains. “But we want to help find another plan so these students can get the care they need.”

Conrad says the number of students seeking services at the campus counseling center is up 35 percent compared with this time last year. “Students are definitely aware of us, and they are coming in,” she says. “Sometimes it’s related to April 16, but most come in with personal concerns that they want to talk about. Some students are doing well and moving on, but the students that have symptoms of anxiety, depression or other mental health concerns, I think April 16 exacerbated those symptoms.”

ACA lends a hand

Because the shootings took place shortly before Virginia Tech let out for the summer, there was concern that students returning home might not know where to go to access counseling services to help them deal with the tragedy’s aftermath or might not seek services because of financial concern. In response, the Virginia Tech counselor education program approached ACA about organizing an initiative to provide pro bono counseling services for students who were away from campus for the summer. More than 1,000 ACA and Virginia Counselors Association members volunteered for the initiative. Volunteers came from all 50 states as well as Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. According to ACA Chief Professional Officer David Kaplan, 69 Virginia Tech students from 18 states used the free counseling to get the help they needed.

In a letter of appreciation addressed to ACA President Brian Canfield, Lawson wrote: “There are a few ways to consider these numbers; in fiscal terms, these counselors gave our students a ‘gift’ of over $20,000, a conservative estimate of the fee for those services. However, I prefer to think of this gift in the human terms. Sixty-nine of our students were supported by caring professionals when they were away from the friends, campus and community that they love. Sixty-nine of our students felt the compassion that was so present on our campus extend home with them through the compassion of our counselor colleagues. Sixty-nine of our students were able to continue to work through their grief and sadness and, hopefully, move on to recovery and healing because of the skill and kindness of these counselors, and 26,000 students knew that they were not alone.”

Angela Kennedy is a senior writer at Counseling Today. Contact her at akennedy@counseling.org. Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org