"Not a Counselor"
by Harry Lancaster
From the Chronicle of Higher Education, (2/1/06)
For the worse part of a semester I lived a student's suffering.
The student -- an 18-year-old I'll call Mandy -- sought me out when I assigned a psychoanalytical essay on father-daughter incestuous relationships in literature. She asked to be excused from the assignment because, as she said, "The topic, well, just hits a little too close to home, if that makes sense." Believing she must be an incest survivor, I excused her from the assignment and silently lamented her lost childhood.
Over the next few weeks she stopped by my office with increasing frequency. Her painful story came out in fragments: She told of a family torn, a mother who didn't notice her, two younger sisters who picked on her, a father who ... was angry. I urged her to let me connect her with a professional counselor. I know my limits: I'm an English professor, not a trained psychologist. She replied that she wasn't ready, so I continued to respect her privacy and not take her by the hand to the counseling center.
Still, I decided to call a psychologist friend for some guidance. He clarified that as she was an adult, she had to decide about seeking counseling to help her deal with any past sexual abuse. If the abuse was current, he pointed out, things would be different: Even if she felt safe at college, her younger sisters were at risk, and thus I would have to notify the authorities.
Matters became worse as Thanksgiving Break approached. Mandy said that she was afraid to go home. She spent hours outlining her anxiety -- she just couldn't be with her family; the memories were too strong. Still, she somehow made it home and back, and she found me that first Monday back.
What she revealed chilled me. In her fragmented way, she was able to share that the abuse was current. I knew I had to act, so after a sleepless night, I contacted our counseling center, scared now that the absolute worst had happened.
I was wrong. Her story of rape and incest had one final, gut-wrenching turn.
It was all a lie.
The office hours I had given up for her, the sleep I had lost, the anxiety I had felt -- all for a lie. The campus counselor I called told me that Mandy had pulled the same routine earlier in the term. Another professor, several friends in her dorm, the RAs, even the housing coordinator had all been seduced by her story.
Later that day Mandy came by my office. By that time I had spoken to the dean of students and several other relevant personnel. Mandy would soon be on her way home -- her mother was already driving to the campus. I confronted Mandy in the hall outside my office; I wouldn't give her an opportunity for more deception.
"I know the truth now, Mandy. I know you lied," I said, and waited for the apology that never came. "I think we're all done now. You'll want to call the dean." She turned and walked away, never saying a word.
The incident angered me greatly. For a few days I was in a funk, second-guessing every decision I had made about students throughout the term: They were all liars, not to be trusted. But the feeling slowly passed and my open nature returned (a process certainly aided by a welcome winter break).
Now that I have the benefit of hindsight, I realize that Mandy needs help in ways I cannot comprehend. Her psychological concerns haunt her worse than she haunts me. And I also realize that her situation may be indicative of a coming wave.
My colleagues in student life say that the number of students coming to the campus with mental-health issues is on the rise. There is no shortage of theories as to why -- too much TV, parents who "hover" and push students to extremes, a society more dedicated to "mainstreaming" those with psychological issues, and so on. But one fact is clear: With more and more people going to college, the number of cases is absolutely going to rise.
The guidelines governing how colleges can respond to students with psychological problems rightly respect the privacy and dignity of the individual, though not without potential cost. For one, admissions officers cannot ask about, nor are candidates required to volunteer, any such conditions. Students, once enrolled, are not required to admit to any problem, unless they seek accommodations from the academic-support office.
Student-life offices typically become aware of problems only after an incident has occurred, but student behavior issues often stay on the student-life side of campus. My pathological liar, judged not to be a threat, remained "protected" by student life and remained in classes.
I wish I could have been warned, even vaguely, that "one of my students" had a record of misleading faculty members and thus I should immediately direct any student who shared remarkable personal stories to the counseling center for further conversation -- without bias or prejudice, just as a matter of policy. Still, even with her record of lying earlier in the term, the student-life office decided that Mandy's privacy was to be respected, and she could dupe another faculty member.
Student services at least has some guidelines to follow. But what exactly is the faculty member to do when confronted by a student with psychological troubles? And how will the faculty member's responsibility change as more and more cases occur?
At my small college, the administration gives us somewhat paradoxical advice: We should be open and receptive to students, willing to give them our time and attention. Yet we should refer students with problems to the counseling center, remembering that we can't diagnose problems or make the students go (or even make them call for an appointment). Those varying directives are difficult to balance.
In my case, when the student first came to me, I wrestled with what to do: She was legally an adult with the right to make her own decisions about her private life, yet she appeared to need help. She had said she didn't want to see a counselor on the campus -- in her words, "the counseling center doesn't know what it's doing" -- and I felt obliged to honor her request and her privacy.
Wanting to help, I kept listening. She seemed to need someone to talk to, and she trusted me. And I have to admit it: Being trusted is a good feeling.
But it was exactly that "good guy" nature that got me in trouble -- that's what she exploited. Many of my colleagues with whom I've shared this story have sympathized, for they, too, would want to be the good guy, the trusted ear, the one who helps save a hurt student. Some said they would have easily believed her protest about the counseling center, for there is that lingering "us-them" relationship between academics and student- life professionals.
I have decided I cannot play the role of informal counselor again: I will direct students immediately to the counseling center, not in judgment but because you need the best person for the job. You call a plumber to fix a broken pipe, right? Let me help you write an essay, not resolve your personal issues.
If only it were that easy with every case. Not every student can be waved off to the counseling center. My fellow faculty members have talked of stalkers and identity thieves who go after professors as easily as they go after students. One colleague even had a voodoo "death curse" put on her some years ago by an angry student -- obviously ineffective (at least so far) but still disturbing.
The matter becomes even darker when I consider that at some future point on our quiet campus, things could turn deadly. I already know tangentially of several episodes in which students became confrontational with professors nearly to the point of violence. Students also have threatened each other. There may be a time when a violent, unstable student will have a gun.
Mandy merely deceived me. What should I do if a student becomes violent? If a student hits me, will I be fired if I hit back in self-defense? If a student brings a gun into my class, am I expected to sacrifice myself for my other students, or can I run and hide and thereby save my children from the loss of a parent? Am I liable if I give the bad (yet deserved) grade that sets off a sniper? Yes, those questions are ultimately all about me -- but you know, I have a vested interest in me.
From my perspective, there are far more questions than answers. I sure would like some answers as I move further and further into this unknown territory.