Young adult shootings


This is the first of two articles about the pressures driving young adults to extreme behaviors, such as shooting rampages. The Rev. Dr. Beth Cooper, an 18-year veteran of campus ministries, explains those pressures in this article. In the next article, she will suggest ways the faith community can respond.

Answers to questions raised by the tragic July cinema shooting in Aurora, Colo., by a student drop-out, need to look well beyond condemnation of senseless incidents of random violence, the need for gun control and explanations of why bad things happen to good people.

The Rev. Beth Cooper

Cooper

A connection exists among several horrible mass shootings in Arizona, at Virginia Tech, at Northwestern Illinois University, and several other settings. Each shooter was a mentally ill, young adult, who either was a college student or recent dropout.

In this global culture, young adults are in trouble. Taking action and making changes are appropriate responses.

As an 18-year veteran of campus ministry, I implore faith communities to see the bigger picture of what is happening to our young adults and what we can do to make a difference. Faith community actions and a coordinated response of our nation to the pressures faced by young adults are now imperative.

No one can bring back life as we used to know it or magically take away the benchmark that determined life before and after the Aurora cinema shooting in which 12 persons were killed and dozens more injured. We can hope that in the future, times will be better, especially for our young people.

Gigantic changes are sweeping across our university and college campuses. Students are experiencing losses, pressures and mental illness in epidemic proportions. The general public has not yet caught on to the repercussions and the impact that societal changes are making.

Denver billboard

United Methodist Communications took out a full-page ad in the Denver Post on July 23, expressing support for the people of Aurora, Colo., following the deadly shooting rampage there. (UMNS photo courtesy of UMCom).

Larger classes make it hard for teachers to know students personally. Counseling and other helping services have been cut. Not only are budgets being cut but the numbers that counselors are having to see are in many cases doubled from what it was in the 1990s. A student needing immediate help may not get it.

Typically when students show signs of trouble, they fall below the radar. Other people are too busy to help. People who need services and don’t have the means need advocates and bridges for their recovery.

Caught in a sea of change:

Gigantic changes are sweeping across our university and college campuses. Students are experiencing losses, pressures and mental illness in epidemic proportions. The general public has not yet caught on to the repercussions and the impact that societal changes are making.

Cutbacks to services related to college
and universities because of economic downturn:

Larger classes make it hard for teachers to know students personally. Counseling and other helping services have been cut. Not only are budgets being cut but the numbers that counselors are having to see are in many cases doubled from what it was in the 1990s. A student needing immediate help may not get it.

Typically when students show signs of trouble, they fall below the radar. Other people are too busy to help. People who need services and don’t have the means need advocates and bridges for their recovery.

Students are experiencing more episodes
and symptoms of mental illness:

This is the fastest growing demographic group on campus. One in four students experiences depression to the point of not being able to get out of bed, according to research by Richard Kadison, M.D., and Theresa Foy DiGeronimo.

Students need more knowledge of mental-health awareness. Parents and responsible adults need to have more face to face time with students.

Competition is greater:

Students are under increasing pressure to perform. There is more competition for admission to programs. With human knowledge exploding exponentially, cultural changes mean that from the time students enter elementary school, they experience stress and pressure to learn and perform.

More people are going to university and college than ever before. With the cutback of services and more students on campus, mental-health issues are going unnoticed. Constant threat of not performing wears on mental and emotional health. Students experience anxiety. Without support to help a student put competition in perspective, anxiety increases and inhibits healthful choices.

College students are suffering in the bad economy:

Students are having a hard time paying increasing university costs that provide fewer services. For students that come from an economic disadvantage, extreme hardship forces them to make decisions that increase risk. Students may choose between eating or paying for gas. Some face a choice between paying tuition and living out of their car, or keeping their room, giving up their dreams of getting out of poverty, and dropping out of school. Those who are the first in their family to be in college may have to cope by themselves if there is no family member or friend who understands the pressures and changes they face.

Crucial mental health issues
emerge during young adult years:

Some mental-health conditions don’t show up in earlier years, but become evident during young adulthood. Young adults may begin to experience personality changes and not be self-aware or want to tell their parents. Some don’t want to see a counselor for fear of being stereotyped or because they worry that mental-health issues will prevent them from being successful in school or in their careers.

In another scenario, young adults may be put on helpful medicines and then decide that, by putting mind over matter, they can quit taking medications and handle problems themselves. Isolated and without sympathetic and understanding adults around, young adults may not take care of themselves.

Concern for liability gets in the way of helping
students who drastically need immediate help:

Students who show signs of mental illness may exhibit bizarre behavior. A responsible student may begin staying up at night, not study, or may not pay his or her housing bill. The college acts to protect its financial interests. The school may drop the student from classes or from a program. The student is considered an adult, and the school gives out no information, even to parents, because of privacy laws.

Parents or family members may not know what has happened or that anything has changed. Many times students undergoing these changes don’t have the resources or the mental capabilities to call home or find help. Without anyone even being aware of what has happened, this problem now belongs to the community.

Privacy laws must be updated:

With fresh awareness of human development and how mental illness emerges among young adults, our schools, prisons and community institutions need to provide services to help with diagnosis, intervention and support. Sometimes it takes a team of resource people to put the picture together to update a diagnosis or to provide services for young adults.

Young adult factors that break
down student development:

Alcohol and drug use are an epidemic on university campuses. Students are pressured to binge drink and to take drugs that can lead to psychotic breaks. Sexual experience, sexual abuse and rape are prevalent.

These issues have side effects that can interfere with maturation and development. Student services and education about these issues outside the classroom need to be provided even in a budget slashing economy.

Students are at a higher risk when they have minimal economic resources, busy self-absorbed parents, feel isolated, or have ethnic or cultural issues with the college culture. Each semester female students have the highest risk of being sexually assaulted in the first six weeks. Bullying occurs in residential living quarters and in student programming. Young adults still need supervision, confidentiality, and opportunities to move past their problems without being shamed.

Students feel alone:

Isolation is a huge detrimental issue for young adults, even if they are surrounded by others in their age group. Technology may be a contributing factor. Enormous numbers of students are communicating with each other via the Internet, but not through ordinary social interaction.

Warning signs of distress are missed. More and more students are not taking time for in-depth personal relationships and checking in with those who care. Because there is never enough time to do all the required study and work, much less reflecting on and discovering oneself, the social part of life gets narrowed. Even sex has been separated from truly taking the time to know the other person. Emotional health frays in isolation.

With increasing mental health problems and economic
pressures, irrational, risky and harmful behavior increases:

Many adults know that young adults think that they won’t die, even if they undertake risky behaviors. Fewer adults are aware that the second leading cause of death among young adults is suicide. So as pressures increase, whether young adults feel shame, failure or disappointment in themselves, or abuse at the hands of others, they become vulnerable. Young adults may become more impulsive, fearful, or out of balance. When the emotions snap, so can behaviors.

Next issue: An opportunity for faith communities to respond to this situation through instituting vital ministry.

Editor's note: The Rev. Dr. Beth Cooper is Executive Director and Campus Minister of the Wesley Foundation serving San Diego State University in California. She is author of “Trauma on Campus,” published in To Transform the World: Vital United Methodist Campus Ministries (Nashville, Tenn: General Board of Higher Education & Ministry of The United Methodist Church, 2009). She has done national consultant work in campus ministry, and continues to do presentations related to young adult concerns.

To learn how to become a church that is open, caring and informed about mental illness, become a “Caring Community Congregation.” The program has been developed by Mental Health Ministries, which is led by a United Methodist clergywoman, the Rev. Susan Gregg-Schroeder. After reading the brochure, if your congregation would like to pursue this model, contact the Rev. Cynthia Abrams, director of Alcohol, Other Addictions & Health Care at the General Board of Church & Society, for more information.

Letter to the Editor