Saturday, October 26, 2013

At Risk

Another school shooting this week, this time in Nevada. Fortunately, not much in the way of casualties: only the teacher, who leaped in front of his students, saving their lives. Of course, there is no barometer to indicate the degree of damage done to the community, to the witnesses or to the family of the fallen one. They will carry their burden from this lone incident for years to come.

America has long been aware of social pressure causing irrevocable harm to individuals who, for lack of better means of expression or emotional outlet, go on a rampage. It is frightful, unpredictable behavior. However, America and Americans have taken long strides in recognizing at risk behavior and identifying potential meltdown situations.

In China, the subject of mental health, so long taboo but now unavoidable, is gaining ground. Incidents of random attacks by knife wielders are multiplying. Those on the street corner or public parks seen muttering to some invisible conversation partner or yelling to citizens at large have now become a legion.

On my little corner, this campus, we have our very own Crazy Woman (see The Campus Crazy Woman entry, posted April 2012). Some of the students are coming unraveled (see What’s Happening to my School entry, posted November 2011). A few have become cutters, maiming themselves in order to feel something or to let their toxicity out (see Who Will Save Sasuke entry, posted March 2011)

A current student of mine has openly admitted to cutting herself, much to the horror of her classmates and to my dismay. She seems like a cheerful girl, full of smiles and joy. I would not have pegged her for a cutter, but I will definitely pay close attention to her, just in case.

Clearly mental health is not a new phenomenon in China. Until recently, the Chinese have hidden any form of personal or familial weakness – physical, mental or emotional behind the characteristic stoicism endemic to this society. Only because of sweeping changes in the culture have these ‘weaknesses’ become prevalent. The dilemma is that people are free to remove barriers behind which these ‘flaws’ were hidden, but the medical/psychological community is not caught up on the demand for treatment or rehabilitation. In fact, according to Sam, there is only 1 clinic that treats mental or emotional illness in Wuhan.

One clinic for over 8 million people. That would be one busy doctor!

The educational community is not caught up on recognizing at risk behavior either. To my knowledge, there is a mental health counselor on campus. Whether effective or not is not the issue. More to the point would be that students and teachers recognize at risk behavior and make recommendations or seek to intervene before something drastic happens.

Enter Leo.

When I met him last year, he was a self-confident freshman with the world at his feet. He joined my classes for a while, expressing the wish to learn as much English as he could. He wanted to be rich, famous and own a sports car. For Leo, everything was falling into place. Everything about him smelled of success: his upright walk, his cocky grin and his energetic presence.

During the intervening months, something happened. He stopped coming to class. Regretfully, with a plateful of activity, classrooms full of students, armfuls of friends and lingering health problems, I lost track of him. Sometimes we would connect by text message but even that fell off when he changed his phone number.

We ran into each other about a month ago. I was coming home and found him ambling around the Over the Wall Community. He was a little more stooped but otherwise recognizable as the brash young man I remembered. As we walked back to school together, he asked if he could talk with me sometime. Remembering his enthusiasm, and being the keeper of many student secrets anyway I told him he would be welcome anytime.

He called me later that evening, asking to borrow 900Yuan. I was shocked. Students have asked to borrow money before. Each time I demur, stating that I do not lend money on principle. Not that they ask for much: maybe 100Yuan, or just enough to buy food or a book. If it is for such things as food I will treat them to a meal or take them to the grocery store, but never do I fork over any cash. 

I believe that, if word got out that the foreigner teacher lends money, I would have students lined up around the block with their hands out. Much better to refuse all requests, even for small sums.

One time a student asked to borrow 300Yuan, but never has anyone had the audacity to ask for as much money as Leo had. Having talked this matter over with Sam, I learned that the school has discretionary funds for students in a jam. The process of applying for and receiving school money is humiliating for me, a ‘westerner’, but ten times more so to the proud Chinese.

When I told Sam about Leo and the amount of money he asked to borrow, it was because I wanted Sam to explain to him the process of asking for money from the school. Sam, apparently angrier than I thought he was, essentially chewed the kid out and told him I was forbidden to lend anyone money and he’d better not ask me again. I understand that my friend would be outraged, but I don’t believe he needed to go as far as he did in chastising the kid. Nevertheless, I appreciate him standing up for me. Until Sam called him, Leo called or texted me several times each day. After that dressing down all contact from Leo stopped.   

Since Leo’s loan request, thought niggled at me that he might be in a bad way. Actually seeing him, two weeks after Sam’s dressing down convinced me. Leo is an ‘at risk’ student.

His complexion is now pasty verging on ashen, and pockmarked with blazing red acne. He has put on a substantial amount of weight. His movements are sluggish and his tone is lackluster. He walks with his head down and constantly travels alone – no dorm mates or classmates to chatter with, as is so common here. His clothes appear unkempt and he seems unwashed and uncared for. Between his appearance and demeanor, coupled with the amount of money he asked to borrow, if I didn’t know better, I would swear that Leo is on drugs, at the very least.

To my knowledge the teachers on our campus have received no training in recognizing at risk behavior in students. I don’t even know if it is our responsibility as university teachers to deter or identify at risk students. My greatest concern is that students who are at risk will harm themselves of course, but now, with growing numbers of public attacks, I also think about how students living in close proximity to each other, as they do in the dorms might harm more than themselves.

I don’t know what to do. It would seem cruel to finger Leo as ‘at risk’ and subject him to humiliating exposure as a danger to himself and others if in fact he is not at risk and I’ve misread the whole situation. On the other hand, what if I’m right and the kid ends up maiming his dorm mates before doing himself in?

That actually happened in some far flung city in China, about a year ago. A student killed his 3 dorm mates and then hid their bodies because he was A. ashamed of himself and B. didn’t know what else to do. Earlier this year in Shanghai another student poisoned his dorm mate over some grudge he held.

As I reported in the Social Studies entry posted October of this year, either crime is on the rise or salacious reporting of crime is on the rise. Either way statistics are on the rise. I would hate to have Leo or any Leo action fallout on my conscience because I failed to act when clearly all warning signs were there. Conversely, I am not the only teacher who interacts with Leo… but I may well be the only teacher with any training or experience dealing with at risk behavior. Besides that, for all of my guan xi and acceptance, both in this community and with my fellow teachers, I am still a bit of an outsider when it comes to Chinese ways, tradition and lifestyle.  

What should I do?         



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