Mentally Ill Students Create a Slippery Legal Slope
> 4/23/2007 11:21:53 AM

Caught between matters of confidentiality and a legal responsibility to ensure the well-being of students suffering from mental illness as well as their classmates, colleges and universities face a set of increasingly complex legal and moral standards that may serve to overheat an already contentious and extremely important issue. In the face of the horrible tragedy at Virginia Tech and new legislation passed to further regulate the appropriate methods with which universities can respond to the needs and threats posed by mentally ill and suicidal students, school officials will have to re-examine their roles in addressing the prevalence of depression and suicide on American campuses. While incidents like the Virginia Tech shooting are, thankfully, an extremely rare occurrence, a 2006 study reported that, over the previous year: sixteen percent of college students had experienced depression so deep that they found it difficult to function; nine percent had seriously considered suicide; and one in one hundred had made direct attempts to end their own lives.

Due to privacy laws regulating the disclosure of sensitive personal information, school health officials may only notify campus authorities or family members if they can decisively conclude that a student poses a threat to him/herself or others. Unfortunately, the precise point at which violence becomes a very real possibilty is difficult to measure. Faculty may often be forced to make a choice between either overstepping their roles as counselors and guardians due to a desire to protect the individuals under their supervision or backing away from the issue in order to avoid the same conflicts of interest and the possible liabilities they create. A law recently passed by the state of Virginia prohibits schools from punishing or expelling students simply because they have attempted suicide or sought treatment for significant mental health problems. While the law is intended to protect the rights of students suffering from severe depression or related disorders, it may further tie the hands of officials looking to act in order to prevent on-campus violence or other serious behavioral disturbances.

Some in the world of academia are wary of legal precedents such as that set by a 2005 ruling on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's role in the suicide of a student five years earlier. Elizabeth H. Shin made headlines in 2000 when she committed suicide in her MIT dorm room; she had spoken of her plans to end her own life and several mental health professionals had attempted to reach out to her, but a judge ruled that the young woman's family had grounds to proceed with their suit charging several university officials with negligence in the instance of her death. A large settlement was eventually made in order to avoid further legal proceedings. On the other side of the equation, a George Washington University student successfully sued the school in 2001, arguing that they had violated his rights by "... threaten(ing) him with criminal prosecution and ultimately end(ing) his college career at the school of his choice" simply because he sought treatment for his severe depression. Of course, a lack of very specific knowledge regarding these cases makes it difficult for laymen to comment, but there's no question that schools have now become more cautious in their dealings with students affected by mental illness.

A positive trend may yet emerge from these horrible tragedies: college students are now far more likely to seek and accept professional help for their problems, and incidents like those at MIT and Virginia Tech, though marked by extreme pain and loss, may help intensify the nationwide focus on depression and its variants as they exist among the American student body. The fact that more students are now acting to address their problems is complicated by the failure of most schools to expand their counseling services in turn. We cannot expect to curb the cycles of depression and violence without committing increased research and educational resources to the problem. While new legal precedents may further complicate the roles that school officials play in combating mental illness, they must continue to do so as they best see fit. Intervention, difficult as it may sometimes be, can also help to prevent the sort of horrors witnessed in Virginia and Massachusetts. Some students may be beyond our reach, but that fact does not negate our collective responsibility to those making their way through the world of American higher education.


What are the leading hypotheses for the increase in prevalence of mood disorder in college students? Obviously, greater awareness and perhaps acceptance of treatment regimens might account for some component of the measured increase. I can think of other potential factors such as increased debt burden from student loans, or intensified commitment to and investment in specialized training and the fear of failure within this realm with no perceived alternative life course.
Posted by: mindrepair 5/2/2007 12:17:26 PM

Another factor to consider is that more students with pre-existing mood disorders are now choosing to attend school. Greater societal awareness of mental health issues has led to less stigma and more opportunities for those with diagnoses, which is great. College however, presents new and more stressful situations that can exacerbate problems or simply allow those to surface that had previously not presented. In this way, it's not that there is an increase in prevalence, but an improvement in the overall quality of life for those with mental illness, which has allowed them to lead lives that include college study. What we need to make sure of, is that we have the proper support networks and mental health offerings to help those with diagnoses complete their study. This is just one of many possible explanations, and one part of a complicated issue.
Posted by: TheEditorInChief 5/2/2007 11:20:31 AM

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