WASHINGTON - Mental illness appears to be a growing problem on college campuses and should be addressed in order to prevent the kind of violence that turned Virginia Tech into a killing field this spring, federal officials reported Wednesday.
A joint report by the Departments of Justice, Education, and Health and Human Services concluded that there's no sure-fire way to stop campus killings but offered ideas for reducing the risk. The 22-page analysis called for better communication between educators and mental-health workers, better training for campus police and more help for mentally ill students.
President Bush requested the multi-agency report in April, just days after a mentally ill Virginia Tech student killed 32 classmates and faculty members before fatally shooting himself. Officials from the three federal agencies conducted hearings and met with experts in a dozen states to gather ideas on how to prevent similar tragedies.
Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt delivered the report to Bush shortly after the House of Representatives approved legislation that would resolve at least one problem area: gaps in the computer system that's used to keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people.
The legislation, approved by a voice vote, would require states to notify the FBI when someone is declared mentally ill and is therefore ineligible to buy a gun. The federal report found that only 23 states provide such information to the FBI database that gun shops use for customer-background checks.
If signed into law, the notification requirement would be the first major change in federal gun-control statutes in more than a decade. The National Rifle Association has endorsed the proposal, which it says wouldn't infringe on the rights of gun owners.
The Virginia Tech report called for more focus on treating people with mental illnesses, as well as making sure they can't buy guns. The federal officials found widespread concern about inadequate mental-health services.
"Throughout these discussions, participants shared concerns about the increasing numbers of people with serious mental illness in schools, jails and prisons," the officials reported. "A number of participants also shared their perception of an increasing number of students with serious mental-health issues and the lack of adequate services to support them, particularly at college and university settings."
One reason that mental illness appears to be more common on campuses now is that improvements in the treatment of mental illness allow more students to go to college, the report said.
Although it concluded that "it is critical to get people with mental illness the services they need," it didn't call for expanding the federal role or urge more funding. Instead, it said HHS "should convene" a meeting with state officials on the subject, "should examine current strategies" for dealing with mental health and "should promote federal agency collaboration."
"There is a screaming need for federal involvement in effective services," said Ralph Ibson, the vice president of government affairs at Mental Health America, an advocacy group. "This isn't about coordinating. It's about putting something in the chasm that exists out there."
Ibson noted that the database-notification bill approved by the House would cost about $1 billion over three years, including $250 million a year to help states comply with notification requirements
"If we're prepared to invest $1billion in databases, can we not begin to think about investing something in programs that we know work and that could avert tragedy?" he said.
To read the report online go to www.whitehouse.gov