My office blinds open and I watch students move to and fro on campus, some just finishing their midterms, and others on their way to take them. It is an unusually warm 93 degrees today in Houston. The faculty, staff and students here at Texas Southern University are trying to remember, with sorrow, confusion and solemnness, how to love again after another student has been killed (and others wounded) at just before halfway through the semester.
There is nothing that breaks my heart more than the idea that my alma mater and teaching home, TSU, has made national news as a result of recent, unprecedented campus violence. As I read through an article on the New York Times website that talks “active shooters” versus shooters with intended, individual targets, I can’t help but notice a mention of Houston’s Third Ward (the community that houses Texas Southern University) as a neighborhood that “struggles with poverty and crime.”
I wonder if these shootings, these tragedies that have left us all numb but aching, would have happened on the campus of The University of Houston (a predominately White institution also housed in Houston’s Third Ward) would an article reporting the incidents mention how poor and crime ridden the community is. I immediately stop myself from wondering, because I know the answer; we all do.
We also know that the shootings at TSU likely would not have made the Times if one of them had not happened within hours of a similar shooting at Northern Arizona University that also left one student dead, and a week after a mass shooting at Oregon's Umpqua Community College (where ten people including the gunman were killed). And as I search the web for extended coverage of the tragedies experienced at TSU, I don’t see any photographs of students holding and consoling each other, of them crying, or of them trying to figure out how to finish their semester after losing two classmates to gun violence within weeks of one another.
There is little talk about how we will move forward, how we will heal, or how much we are hurting to begin with. No news teams covered our campus prayer vigil complete with church shouts and arms raised in praise for the slain and the survivors. We are reminded that Black lives lost don’t garner enough “clicks” to hold the general media’s attention for long, and if we were to decide how fellow citizens feels about violence at TSU, we only have to scroll through the comments left when local news sites do menial jobs of reporting on it.
Not surprisingly, following the second shooting on our campus this semester, one commenter wrote, “at [TSU], when you enter campus, they check you for guns. If you don't have one, they give you one–figuring you'll need it at some point during the visit.”
Violence on Black college campuses are a peculiar thing to discuss publicly. The conversations either steer toward violence being a natural characteristic of Black life, especially in poor Black communities (like in the way we speak about Chicago, for instance), or how we (especially in the case of gun violence) believe campus violence to be a “White thing.” Either way, and in both conversations, we are missing an opportunity to have a serious exchange about the ever-increasing statistics of violence on college campuses, what is causing this increase in violence, and how we can keep our students safe.
At TSU, we have to shift these conversations soon, since, in June, the Texas Legislature signed a bill into law that will allow students to carry concealed weapons on campus and in classrooms. And although, as someone who has lived with depression, and I am skeptical of tying gun violence to mental illness, I have to acknowledge that “During the last decade, university and college counseling centers have reported a shift in the needs of students seeking counseling services, from more benign developmental and informational needs, to more severe psychological problems.”
Professor and licensed psychologist Martha Anne Kitzrow writes more in the NASPA Journal, asserting, “the level of severity of these concerns is much greater than the traditional presenting problems of adjustment and individuation that were seen for college students in counseling center research from the 1950s and 1960s through the early 1980s.”
Many colleges are finding it difficult to cope with all of the students seeking mental health help on campuses across the U.S., including HBCUs, and this is a good thing. According to anchorman Hari Sreenivasan, “There’s more awareness of problems, risks and diagnoses, and combined with the stresses of college life, schools are trying to figure out the right course of treatment, counseling and intervention.” Part of this intervention process for TSU, and for all HBCU’s is eradicating the stigma associated with diagnosing and treating mental illness. This report, for instance, discusses the many barriers preventing Black college students from accessing mental health services.
Additionally and overall, we are possibly raising a generation of children who are not socially, mentally or emotionally equipped to deal with college life. Psychologist and author Hara Estroff Marano reasons, “For increasing numbers of students all across the United States, disappointment now balloons into distress and thoughts of suicide. Lacking any means of emotion regulation and generationally bred on the immediacy of having needs met, they know no middle psychic ground: Mere frustration catapults them into crisis.”
We cannot be naïve enough to believe that campus violence and trends in mental and emotional health issues among college students are not interrelated, especially at HBCUs where students are often non-traditional students trying to juggle work, school and various hardships.
The increasing amount of campus gun violence is not reserved for PWIs. This is clear to me now more than ever as I try to calm my own anxieties after what has happened at TSU over the past seven weeks. And we won’t stop this kind of violence until we properly address what is hurting, stressing and plaguing our students.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and soldier of love. Follow her musings on Twitter @jonubian.