How Mental Health Care Has Changed 50 Years After Kent State Shootings

Apr 29, 2020

In the weeks and months following May 4, 1970, life for Kent State students changed completely. The university responded to the shootings by halting on-campus classes and creating a type of pre-Internet distance learning for students, and students and faculty had to change the way they learned and taught.

The students were, of course, emotionally changed by the experience as well, and the approach to mental health care at the time was quite different than today. 

When National Guard soldiers killed four students on Kent State’s campus, school shootings were far less common than they are in 2020, said Case Western Reserve University mental health researcher David Hussey. In 1970, he said, not many organizations had plans for what to do in that situation.

“The responses would have been, and were, much more fragmented, so they wouldn’t be these coordinated, rehearsed, previously planned types of responses,” he said. “They would have been much more piecemeal, as was the reality back in 1970.”

Kent State University responded by closing campus for six weeks, and when classes resumed, they had faculty counsel students about the event and help students finish their courses and graduate.

A student who was one of the nine wounded on May 4, 1970 recalls that there were no official counseling services like those provided today after a tragedy. However, some students did talk with faculty about the experience, but nothing formal.

Jerry Lewis was a sociology professor at Kent State at the time, and he remembers connecting with students by phone or mail while campus was closed.

“Faculty are pretty good about talking to students about their subjects, in my case sociology, but not so good at counseling, in the way you and I think about counseling today,” Lewis said. “I think a lot of us would listen to stories the students would tell about their experiences.”

Lewis said some of the students didn’t feel like they could talk to their parents about the experience, but they connected with him as a younger faculty member who survived the shooting.

Professor Hussey said many things have changed in our knowledge of mental health over the last 50 years, including having more evidence-based and individualized treatments for mental health issues.

“What I mean by that is these are treatments that have some scientific rigor behind them, that have been studied, and that are more likely to lead to better outcomes for the various disorders they are designed to treat,” he said. “Much of what we teach our students today is really about evidence-based practice. How do you do thorough, focused types of assessments, and then how do you begin to discern what types of treatments would be the best match for the client, given the particular situation and circumstances.”

Kent State psychology professor Karin Coifman agreed that much in the mental health field was anecdotal in the 1970s.

“For a long time, up until probably the mid-90s, there was a flawed understanding of how humans respond to traumatic or aversive events,” Coifman said. “There was this notion that big stressors tax psychological resources and that lots of people have difficulty.”

Coifman said this theory was just an assumption, before well-documented research. She said since that time, studies have shown the majority of people will respond with resiliency after a traumatic event.

“Individuals who are completely resilient, really resilient, in the sense that they will be just fine, those individuals will still have some disruptions, in the early weeks after something happens, and that’s pretty normative,” she said. “Those are things like difficulty sleeping, or having some minor symptoms, and those things resolve on their own within weeks, or months at the most, but usually weeks after something bad happens.”

She said in fact, if you provide everyone with counseling after a traumatic event — as was done in the past — it could be worse for the people who are resilient.

“We now know, not only do most people not need it, but there has also been subsequent research to demonstrate that when people are forced to talk about difficult things, that those people could sometimes suffer consequences,” she said.

Coifman said individualized treatments are much more effective, but that wasn’t common in 1970.  

Many people think post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is common after a traumatic event like the May 4 shooting, but she says that’s not the case.

“It is really important to note that when really bad things happen, PTSD is only one outcome, and it’s not even the most common one,” Coifman said. “We really have to be thinking more broadly about all the emotion-related disorders when a big, emotionally bad event that happens.”

That could be depression or anxiety, which are linked to stressful events. It’s even more likely if a person is prone to these conditions even before the traumatic event.

Case professor David Hussey said that public perception of mental health concerns have changed significantly over the last several decades, especially in one important area.

“One of the strong themes we’ve seen over the past 50 years is a reduction in stigma. There’s greater awareness that mental health affects more people, and that mental health is actually part of physical health,” he said.

But, he said, there’s still a long way to go.

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