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Writings sometimes reveal warning signs

Professors and psychologists at UNLV said Tuesday that the warning signs in writing samples shown by the Virginia Tech shooter were uncommon but not unheard of among college students.

English professor Doug Unger, who founded UNLV’s creative writing section, said he has referred students who have written about violent or suicidal subjects to university psychologists.

But he said he has never come across a student at UNLV who was threatening or posed a threat to the people around them. He said the students he has referred seemed suicidal.

“We have yet to have a student who is a danger to others,” Unger said.

In creative writing classes, he said students frequently write about traumatic experiences, such as sexual abuse, divorce or the loss of a child.

“If you look at the overall picture, it’s not that unusual that someone at Virginia Tech might have something disturbing in their writing,” Unger said.

In his 16 years at UNLV, he said he has dealt with three instances in which a student posed such a serious threat to themselves that disciplinary officers had to get involved.

Unger said the Virginia Tech professor did the right thing in referring the student to psychological services.

Christopher Hudgins, chairman of the English Department, said in his 12 years in the position he has seen six students who have been advised by instructors to seek the free services of the UNLV Wellness Center. He said he couldn’t talk about specific cases or students.

His department has a policy to refer students who appear to be a threat to themselves or others to psychologists, although the policy is at the discretion of the instructors, he said.

In creative writing courses, Hudgins said, the instructor often has to determine whether a student is crying for help or is “the next Stephen King.”

He said great writing often involves tragic or violent topics, including suicide.

“We’re not psychologists. That’s not our job,” Unger said. “I just think that we’re dealing with a world that is full of young people growing up and finding their ways in life, and I think maybe we get insight into those ideas through the field of creative writing.”

At the Community College of Southern Nevada, licensed psychologist Luis Guevara said most of the students he sees are referred to him by faculty in other departments, such as academic counselors or professors.

He said students often develop post-traumatic stress disorder from an event earlier in their life, but events such as Monday’s shooting or the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks can also traumatize students.

The UNLV Student Counseling and Psychological Services Department issued an e-mail Tuesday reminding faculty, staff and students that they can seek the department’s services if they are having trouble coping with Monday’s shooting.

“People tend to have very strong reactions when these kinds of events occur,” said Jamie Davidson, vice president for Student Wellness and a licensed psychologist. “We have had several students come in for different things, and they mention this.”

Students at UNLV and CCSN can use see a psychologist for free. UNLV also has psychiatrists who can prescribe medication.

Davidson said about 10 percent of students use the university’s services for issues ranging from having trouble dealing with a roommate to severe mental illnesses.

Student conversations with mental health professionals are confidential, Davidson said, and professors who encourage students to seek those services are also excluded from the conversations.

Unger said he didn’t think students in creative writing courses were any different from those in other departments, adding that the writing can be an important emotional outlet for students.

“It becomes more than about how to write well,” Unger said. “It turns into how to use writing to improve one’s life.”

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