UConn works to re-evaluate, strengthen mass tragedy protocols

In this file photo, the Jamie Homero Arjona building, which contains UConn's Counseling and Mental Health Services, is pictured. (File Photo/The Daily Campus)

Each year, 33,000 gun deaths occur in America, with 54 percent of those deaths affecting people under the age of 30, according to Generation Progress. This year alone, America has witnessed 25 school shootings on college campuses, according to Time Magazine and CNN.

While University of Connecticut does not have any specific service for victims of gun violence, nor any clubs dedicated to gun violence prevention, the university’s Counseling and Mental Health Services (CMHS) supports students affected by these issues.

“While I (cannot) share specific examples, nor is it a statistic we collect at CMHS, I can say that we certainly have worked with students in the past who have lost loved ones related to gun violence,” CMHS Director Dr. Elizabeth Cracco said.

In lieu of multiple recent on-campus shootings around the nation, CMHS continues to re-evaluate and strengthen its protocols for mass tragedy within a working group at the university. They consult with the statewide Disaster Behavioral Health Response Network (DBHRN), who in turn work jointly with the Connecticut Department of Families and Children and the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services.

Last year, the DBHRN trained over 80 UConn employees in Psychological First Aid so that the university would be well equipped to service mental health needs in the wake of mass disaster, Cracco said.

CMHS also works closely with the UConn Police Department (UCPD) to train staff for Active Shooter response in the event that a campus shooting should occur, Cracco said.

UConn Deputy Chief of Police Hans Rhynhart spoke of measures taken by the UCPD and elaborated on this Active Shooter response training.

“The general approach the Division of Public Safety (Police, Fire, Office of Emergency Management and Emergency Communications) works under in active violence prevention and response is a three pronged approach: preventing acts of violence from occurring, if they do occur, stopping and/or mitigating the threat and providing medical care to the injured as quickly as possible and finally working to help the university community recover from this type of event,” Rhynhart said.

The UCPD continues active threat assessments through outreach with the Student Care Team, which is “a multidisciplinary team that meets regularly to evaluate behaviors by University students that are perceived to be threatening, harming or disruptive to the student, to others or to both and coordinate an appropriate response,” Rhynhart said.

Students can also take active threat training courses through the UCPD, which are offered several times throughout the year to all Storrs and regional campus students.

Should an incident occur, the UConn Office of Emergency Management (OEM) coordinates the university response with those affected on campus, OEM, UCPD and the UConn Fire Department have collaborated to create a ‘hazard guide’ on their websites available for the community to access.

“We in Public Safety, as well as our colleagues across the campus, are continually evaluating our plans and protocols in preparation for an active violence incident,” Rhynhart said. “An example of this is the exploration of providing a safety app to university community members, which among other things, may provide a quick and easy way to report violence to the police department.”

Despite the fact that these protocols and training sessions sanctioned by the police department and CMHS are helpful in preparing the university and its staff, it doesn’t seem to ease students’ minds regarding safety.

“We have noted that over the past five years, anxiety is the number one presenting concern at CMHS,” Cracco said. “Certainly safety concerns are contributory, and if we are seeing and hearing about students and universities experiencing these events, it’s hard not to imagine ourselves in this situation.”

Another concern comes from CMHS’s end, where mental health quality is typically tied to gun violence. This raises a stigma that often prevents people from seeking help for any kind of mental illness they may have.

In a voluntary, anonymous survey conducted by the Daily Campus, 66 percent of the 47 UConn students polled felt that mental health sometimes plays a role in acts of gun violence, while 31.9 percent felt that it always plays a role. In an open-ended response, many students commented on the fact that many individuals who commit mass shootings are mentally ill. The majority of answers included words like “unstable,” “disturbed,” “crazy” and “psychopathic.”

However, Cracco said it is attitudes like these that lead to the misrepresentation of mental illness in gun violence. People with serious mental illnesses commit only three to five percent of mass shootings. A 2001 study of 34 adolescents who had committed mass murders found that that while most had problems socially, abused drugs or alcohol or were bullied, only six percent were noted as medically psychotic upon committing a crime, according to WWLP-22 News.

“What we don’t want to say is those with mental illnesses are more likely to commit violent acts. In fact, that’s not the case,” forensic psychologist for WWLP-22 News, Dr. Stephen Ross, said. “There are some folks who have done mass shootings, who have killed people; they may not be mentally ill, but they’re socially and morally depraved.”

It is “critical to note” that a large majority of people who have mental health problems are not at all violent, Cracco said. Having said that, early prevention and intervention for any case of mental illness is so important to address.

“(Stigma) misrepresents those who live with a mental health disorder and in many cases trivializes their experiences,” UConn Active Minds club president Susan Kusmierski said. “Stigma is one of the main reasons why people do not seek help or treatment for their illness and can be very debilitating.”

Another Active Minds member and third-semester student with a double major in Spanish and psychology said she lost her brother who was believed to have had schizophrenia, unexpectedly last spring to suicide in which he used a gun. Her brother and father had enjoyed hunting as a pastime and had taken multiple courses in gun safety. She said people have told her that if there were not firearms in her house, his death would have never occurred.

The student asked to remain anonymous for personal reasons, including recency of the event and sensitivity toward the issue.

“I think what people fail to understand is that if an individual has truly made the conscious decision to commit suicide, they will find the means to do so,” she said. “(Discussions about gun violence) must be kept separate at an appropriate level from conversations about mental illness. There is little evidence that those who have been diagnosed with a mental illness are more likely to commit an act of gun violence.”

To verify, “decades of research have shown that the link between mental disorders and violent behavior is small and not useful for predicting violent acts,” according to Mother Jones, a reputable non-profit news source.

“Mental illness does not cause gun violence. Consciously making false connections between the two does, however, cause stigma,” the student said. “And stigma has very real consequences for those suffering from a mental illness.”

In the survey conducted by the Daily Campus, it was found that 59.6 percent of polled students have been impacted by gun violence in some way.

Warren Hardy, a Hartford youth development professional, street mediator certified as a Level I Kingian Nonviolence trainer and a member of the board of directors for the Connecticut Center for Nonviolence said, “This is an epidemic against young people. We can make gun violence preventable if we reach out and build a relationship with people instead of allowing the hurt to build up and create violence.”

Hardy hopes that the extensive violence can be curbed through outreach to youth and individuals who have been victims. He called for increased involvement of the student voice in this process of violence removal.

Sarah Clements, another activist and also a student organizer with Generation Progress, agreed that “student voices are incredibly crucial” in making decisions that will help end gun violence. Clements has been an advocate for gun violence prevention since her mother survived the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. She is also involved with her school’s group, Georgetown Against Gun Violence, founded in 2014.

Clements argued that gun violence prevention measures have shaped the lives of our generation, as young people have grown up with “lockdown drills, bullet proof backpacks, campus carry legislation, and news reports of shootings on the regular in our communities.” All of this puts colleges students in a unique position to use learning and experience to help advance today’s movement on guns, Clements said.

“There is a growing number of campus groups being formed around the country,” Clements said. “Whether you help build something like that at your school, or join groups from the local, state and national level which advocate on this issue, it’s not difficult to get involved.”

As is the case with most movements, the phrasing and terminology implored by the individuals that comprise the participants greatly determines the success of the movement.

“Messaging is everything in political advocacy and politics in general, on any issue or electoral campaign,” Clements said. “I would say the purpose of saying ‘gun violence prevention’ or ‘gun reform’ rather than ‘gun control’ is to be more specific with the goals of our movement. We do not want to control rights to own a firearm. We do want to prevent gun violence with common sense policy solutions.”

Like Clements, founder and president of Georgetown Against Gun Violence Emma Iannini advocates for the presence of a stronger student voice on college campuses.

“The leading cause of death in 18-30 year olds is no longer automobile accidents, it’s gun violence,” Iannini said. “We have elected officials that are voting for laws that are not keeping us safe.”

Iannini said she is tired of having to tolerate gun violence and is worried that if it continues, she might have to send her future children to schools where lockdown drills are still commonplace.

“We live in a culture where gun violence impacts everyone,” Cracco said. “Whether directly or vicariously, whether by gun violence or the more pervasive aspects of interpersonal violence.”

Anyone in the UConn community struggling with mental illness, the effects of gun violence or any other kind of issue should not hesitate to contact any of the sources listed below:

Counseling and Mental Health Services: (860) 486-4705

UConn Police Department: (860) 486-4800 or 911

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255


Molly Stadnicki is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at molly.stadnicki@uconn.edu. She tweets @molly_stadnicki.

Elizabeth Charash is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at elizabeth.charash@uconn.edu.