Active Minds at Oberlin Responds to Loughner Shooting

Carmelita Rosner

While Oberlin students were away on Winter Term, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner of Tucson, AZ shot 19 people, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona). A few months earlier, he dropped out of college for what many suspected to be mental health issues. Officials at the college recommended that he see a doctor, but he did not, possibly because of a stigma against those with mental health issues. At Oberlin College, the Active Minds mental health group is working to erase that stigma.

“It is hard to say whether these events were ‘avoidable,’” said College senior Patrick Doherty, chair of Active Minds at Oberlin. “Rather than focus on what could have happened, we at Active Minds want to continue to encourage students to reach out … and address changes when they are first noticed.”

Active Minds is a nationwide organization with around 250 chapters. Oberlin’s chapter was founded by Anna Ernst, OC ’10, who felt that mental health support services were especially necessary in the high-stress environment of a four-year college such as the College.

“What I worry about at Oberlin,” Ernst said in a 2010 interview with the Review, “… is that people who are experiencing mental health issues, like severe anxiety, depression … that they’ll just think, ‘This is kind of crazy, but I’m going to try and fight it out on my own.’”

Three months before the shooting, Loughner dropped out of Pima Community College after deciding not to fulfill the school’s requirement for his return. On Oct. 4, 2010, Loughner, his parents and college administrations met to discuss Loughner’s behavior, which was becoming more and more disconcerting. The school stipulated that Loughner obtain a mental health evaluation certifying that he did not present any danger to himself or others at the College. Loughner decided against undergoing such an evaluation.

Had he, through motivations of his own or his parents, gone for the health check Pima necessitated for re-admittance, Loughner’s mental disorder may have been diagnosed and appropriately treated. Instead, attempts, as indirect as they were, to help Loughner fell to the wayside, perhaps in fear of the stigma associated with mental health concerns.

“It’s important to point out,” Doherty said, “that students don’t need to think that they have a diagnosable disorder to utilize the Counseling Center as a resource.”

A 2002 study conducted by the U.S. Secret Service and U.S Department of Education examined 37 incidents of school violence in the U.S between December 1974 and May 2000 found that 17 percent of school shooters had been previously diagnosed with mental health or behavior disorders. 93 percent behaved in manners that evoked concern in others or indicated that there was a need for help. Loughner falls into that 93 percent, as well as the 24 percent that have a known history of drug abuse or arrest.

Mental health problems, including but not limited to depression and anxiety, are on the rise among college students in the United States, said Doherty. Emphasizing the importance of not dwelling on whether this was preventable or not, he referenced a January New York Times article, “Positives with Roots in Tragedy on Campus,” that discussed the efforts and actions that colleges have taken to address mental health concerns after on-campus tragedies.

Said Doherty, “Our hope is that colleges and universities around the country will not wait for these tragic events in order to address mental health concerns on their campuses.”

Though none directly relate to the shooting, Active Minds has a number of events planned for the semester.