Did the University of Colorado Release James Holmes from its Watch before Looking at Him?

Last year, when a first-year graduate student found himself “very distracted...because of many reasons,” he wrote to Yahoo! Answers for help: “I cannot continue with this anymore before I have any mental problem....Please help.” Yahoo's answer: “Different schools have different policies....You can call the Registrar, or you can call your counselor. Sorry, but I don't have magic powers. Yes, I tend to think higher education is not for you.”

We might expect such irresponsible indifference from an online answer mill, but from everything we've been hearing, the first-year graduate student at the University of Colorado Denver, who went on a murder spree last Friday at a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” killing 12 and wounding 57, received no better guidance from a major and respected university.

The picture we're getting is of a young man who was increasingly isolated and strange in his actions, darting in and out of class without speaking to anyone and unable to function academically.  His horrendous  destruction, bizarre appearance, delusional identification (the Joker from earlier Batman films), and his near-catatonic appearance at his first court appearance, suggest that James Homes has been suffering from psychotic illness.

Data from last year's "Consortium Mental Health and Counseling Study," conducted at Penn State, confirmed what most of us have already sensed: higher education today is extremely stressful. One-third of the 25,000 undergraduate students surveyed said they had sought counseling, most often for a sense of isolation and anxiety about academics and their future.  For graduate students the experience of stress is even more intense as campus social life plummets and competition and expectations skyrocket. A 2009 study of graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, sponsored by the American College Health Association reported that 67 percent of graduate students at the campus had "felt hopeless at least once in the last year," while 54 percent felt "so depressed they had a hard time functioning" and 10 percent had considered suicide. Financial burdens, a sense of social isolation and fierce competition are pervasive. 

Even the brightest students are not exempt. In his online guide “Some Modest Advice for Graduate Students,” Yale University Professor of Ecology Stephen C. Stearns advises students about what to expect in graduate school. “Prepare for the worst,” he writes. “Nobody cares about you.” Some professors do care, of course, but they're so busy that practically speaking, “You are on your own.”  Most junior faculty in the academic writing mentoring program at the City University of New York, which I direct, speak often of the isolation and institutional indifference they experienced in their recent graduate studies, and on more than one occasion, a recently appointed professor has broken into tears in our small group seminars, exclaiming that it was the first time he/she felt supported since starting graduate studies.

The experience of stress has often been linked to the onset of major depression as well as psychotic illness. h  James Holmes is 24, in the peak period (18-26) for the onset of schizophrenia in males. Most students with psychotic disorders have not only psychological problems (obsessiveness, inertia, etc) but problems in concentration, memory, and reasoning. With budget cuts, behavioral counseling has been woefully weakened, and as Brian Van Brunt pointed out earlier this year, truly troubled students, even in better times, tend to get the “brush off.” .Colorado offers an online guide to help faculty detect, relate to, and make referrals for for disturbed and distressed students, but whether faculty used this modest resource to address Mr. Holmes's problems--academic, psychological, and their challenging areas of overlap--we do not know   The counseling center offers students up to 10 free sessions with a counselor, hardly enough for a student with even modest psychological challenges. Academic advisement tends to be administrative, impersonal and even punitive in its practices. (The link to the graduate student academic advisement page for University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus is empty )--and except for news releases, all pages related to the graduate program in neuroscience are, since the shooting, accessible only with a password.//www.ucdenver.edu/academics/colleges/medicalschool/programs/Neuroscience/Program/)

James Holmes was in the process of  officially withdrawing from graduate school, the University's initial press statement reported, when he executed his mass murders. To withdraw from the University of Colorado one must complete a  1-page form, filling in  name, address, University ID # and providing signatures from the dean, as well as the bookstore, registrar, bursar, and parking garage--to make sure no bills are outstanding//catalog.ucdenver.edu/content.php?catoid=8&navoid=1006 )-services/resources/registrar/Documents/RegistrarForms/AMC/withdrawal.pdf. There is a line on the form in which to write Reason for Withdrawing, which Mr. Holmes evidently left blank, the basis for the University's statements that Mr. Holmes offered no reason for withdrawing from the doctoral program in neuroscience though he was "encouraged" to do so, Graduate School Dean, Barry Shur, later stated. Did he mean any other encouragement than the blank line on the withdrawal form? . More recently, the University has stated he left for academic reasons in June 2012. The withdrawal process requires no counseling or advisement meeting. We are learning now that prior to the massacre Holmes sent a notebook illustrating his plans to  campus psychiatrist, to whom it was never delivered.

The University of Colorado is providing few details about its association with James Holmes. At a July 23rd news conference, AP reports, the University  cited law enforcement requests and privacy laws as the reason for their silence. Dean Shur called the school  "a family environment," where professors "are very much in contact with the students in the program ... especially any student who might have academic or other difficulties." For troubled students, Shur said,  "we would expect faculty to reach out to support services.” Did they? If so, what kind of support did he get? Faculty members AP has contacted have said the university has told them not to comment on their experience with Holmes. 

It's time for the University of Colorado to disclose the details of its relationship with James Holmes, and explain what, if any, support, formal and/or informal, it offered him.  And it's high time for university support services in our graduate schools--departmental, administrative, and psychological--to make good on their one big family rhetoric, assume a  truly human face and take a good look at the whole student.  More than signatures should be required before the university family ejects disturbed and desperate young people out into the world.

AlterNet / By Nora Eisenberg

Posted at July 26, 2012, 10:22am

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