Mental health needs an issue for Georgia Tech even before coronavirus

Georgia Tech students were on the move in between classes on campus on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. Georgia Tech, like other state colleges and universities, has closed campuses due to the coronavirus outbreak and is offering online counseling services for students needing assistance. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

Georgia Tech students were on the move in between classes on campus on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. Georgia Tech, like other state colleges and universities, has closed campuses due to the coronavirus outbreak and is offering online counseling services for students needing assistance. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

The solemn email announcement by Georgia Tech was sent on Feb. 14.

“Dear Students, Faculty and Staff,” the message by John Stein, Tech’s vice president for student life, began. “It is with great sadness that I write today to inform you of the death of William ‘Andrew’ Collins, a first-year biomedical engineering (BME) major from Kathleen, Ga. It is wrenching to have to report this news to you, even more so following the deaths of other members of our community this academic year.”

Collins, 19, who died on Feb. 13, was the fifth Georgia Tech student to die this school year. While Georgia Tech officials declined to discuss the causes of those deaths, they have brought to the forefront longstanding problems the school has had grappling with student anxiety and mental health challenges. Georgia Tech’s Interfraternity Council began work after Collins’ death on new mental health initiatives.

Georgia Tech, more so than any state school in recent years, has faced public pressure and scrutiny to better help students struggling with such issues.

Two students died near the end of the fall 2018 semester from apparent suicides. The family of Scout Schultz, a Georgia Tech student shot and killed by a campus police officer in 2017, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in September against the school. The lawsuit complaint says Georgia Tech failed to properly accommodate students having a mental health crisis. Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said earlier this month he will not pursue criminal charges against the officer, Tyler Beck.

Megan Behm, 19, also a first-year student, met Collins a few times and was “shocked” by his death. Behm and her mother have met with deans and others since Collins’ death to seek solutions that will improve mental health services on campus. Their ideas include extending operating hours at the campus counseling center after Behm said she watched some classmates turned away for help, and pushing for a law requiring Georgia colleges to share statistics about student suicides. Behm’s mother said she recently discussed the ideas with an aide to U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga.

“There is a stigma within the community surrounding mental health topics here,” said Behm, a chemical and molecular engineering major from Cobb County. “Faculty and administration do not talk about mental health or student deaths. We receive nothing outside of an email from the dean of student services when a student death occurs. We need to talk about and address the issues we have as a university, instead of merely applying more money to services.”

And now, Georgia Tech must find ways to serve students seeking counseling and mental health services amid the coronavirus crisis. Georgia Tech, like other colleges and universities throughout the state, is offering various counseling service options, including online counseling sessions, now that campuses are closed to prevent the spread of the virus. College students say they need such services as they deal with the stress of abruptly having to leave campus, as well as worrying about the health of friends who were in study-abroad programs.

Loeffler's office noted $425 million from the $2.2 trillion federal coronavirus relief bill approved last week will go toward mental health and substance abuse disorders.

“Delivering excellent constituent services to help Georgians combat COVID-19 is her number one priority,” her office said in a statement.

Georgia Tech leaders say they have made several improvements this school year. It opened a new center on campus last year as part of an effort to streamline its counseling and referral services. They say the center has reduced appointment wait times to one to three business days. They were previously 10 days or more during some periods, said Stein. Georgia Tech has put clinically trained and licensed counseling staff in its colleges of engineering and computing to make mental health services more accessible to students. They’re also encouraging faculty to discuss mental health issues and services available on campus.

“It’s about changing the culture in the classroom beyond teaching the subject,” Georgia Tech’s engineering school dean, Steven W. McLaughlin, said in an interview about those classroom conversations.

Ángel Cabrera, who is in his first year as Georgia Tech's president, said improving mental health was one of his top goals in his first address to students in September. Many students applauded when he addressed the topic.

Students say the pressure to succeed at Tech is intense.

A sign posted on Georgia Tech’s campus on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2019, as part of a display to encourage students to seek counseling for anxiety, depression or stress.

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Georgia Tech is consistently ranked as one of the top academic institutions in the nation. Its admissions rate is about 20%, the lowest of any public university in Georgia. Students must maintain high grade-point averages, not only to impress potential employers upon graduation, but to keep the HOPE or Zell Miller scholarship, which can cover about all tuition costs.

Student mental health is a national issue. One in 5 children and adolescents will face a significant mental health condition before college, federal research has found. A 2018 study by a team of Harvard Medical School researchers of about 67,000 students in more than 100 colleges and universities nationwide found 1 in 4 students reported being diagnosed with or treated for a mental health disorder in the prior year. One in 5 students considered suicide in the prior year, and 9% of those surveyed attempted suicide.

Georgia Bulldogs head football coach Kirby Smart spoke on the issue after Georgia Southern football player Jordan Wiggins died of a suicide by overdose in October.

“These kids today are dealing with a lot more pressure, anxiety, issues, social media, pressure on themselves to perform, whatever it may be. I’m not just talking about student-athletes, we’re talking about students,” the coach said at the time.

The University System of Georgia created a task force in October charged with proposing ideas to improve student mental health services at its 26 schools, which include Georgia Tech. A report was scheduled to be released this spring.

Collins, called Andrew by his friends, was the valedictorian of The Westfield School, a Christian prep school in Perry, and a football star, according to an online obituary. He pledged in the Sigma Nu fraternity at Georgia Tech. The fraternity’s leader, Parker Quarles, said via email that it is hoping to raise $10,000 through a GoFundMe account to build a new children’s wing to Collins’ local church, where he was an active member. Sigma Nu members are creating what Quarles described as a “shrine” in Collins’ memory “so that following Sigma Nus will hold his name in high regard throughout the future.”

Efforts to contact Collins’ family, who left Georgia after his death, were unsuccessful.

Behm said Georgia Tech needs better counseling services after she watched a handful of students come to the center one September afternoon and be turned away because the center closed at 5 p.m. She had checked in there two hours earlier to set up an appointment with a counselor to discuss her troubles transitioning as a first-year student. Behm said she was asked if she could return the following morning. She couldn’t because of her class schedule and didn’t return.

Counseling centers at Georgia’s largest public and private colleges generally open around 8 a.m. and close at 5 p.m. Georgia Tech said it extends the center’s hours to 7 p.m. when necessary. A few schools, such as New York University, have counseling center hours on Saturdays. Behm believes Georgia Tech’s center should have such flexibility to accommodate student schedules.

New Jersey lawmakers adopted a bill that unanimously passed both legislative chambers in 2016 requiring health care professionals be available 24 hours a day remotely on all state college campuses. They also passed a bill requiring its colleges to post information annually on how many students attempted or committed suicide. Both laws were created in memory of Madison Holleran, a 19-year-old New Jersey native who committed suicide during her first year at the University of Pennsylvania in 2014. Pennsylvania and Washington also have laws requiring colleges to make public information about suicides.

“If the colleges were forced to report the statistics, then they would be forced to provide more services,” said Rose Behm, Megan’s mother.

Georgia Tech leaders, meanwhile, are focused on encouraging more students to speak openly about mental health or their anxieties. McLaughlin believes the additional counseling staff in some of its schools is helping.

“We’re trying to find additional pathways for students to express themselves,” he said.

Stein said Georgia Tech will put mental health professionals in the remaining colleges that don’t currently have one and add two additional case managers in the counseling center.

“In a moment like this it is important to take care of ourselves, our friends and our loved ones,” he wrote at the end of that Feb. 14 message titled “Remembering William Andrew Collins.” “I know that we will all be watchful for those in need and ready to support one another. Please do not hesitate to inform someone here at Tech of your own concern or concern for another.”