Depression Case Exposes University's Betrayal
> 3/13/2006 2:38:25 PM

Unlike most of his classmates, Jordan Nott has stuggled to enjoy his college experience. Now a 20-year-old senior, Nott was forced to leave his first school, George Washington University, after he went to the school hospital and told doctors that he had been contemplating suicide.

After a close friend committed suicide himself, Nott slipped into a deep depression. He sought counseling through GWU and began taking what the Washington Post reports were psychiatric drugs. As the WaPo continues, "Within a day and a half of arriving [at the hospital however], he got a letter from a GWU administrator saying his 'endangering behavior' violated the code of student conduct. He faced possible suspension and expulsion from school, the letter said, unless he withdrew and deferred the charges while he got treatment."

Nott's case made national news when he filed a lawsuit against GWU, alleging that the school violated laws protecting Americans with disabilities. "In essence, [the lawsuit] says the school betrayed him by sharing confidential treatment information and suspending him just when he most needed help."

For its part, GWU's actions should not have been wholly unexpected. The overall relationship between student and universities has been shifting over the past several decades. The practice of en loco parentis, which dominated decision making until the late 70's, gave way to a doctrine which treated students as adults. But more recently, court cases and massive settlements have forced administrators to consider the school's liability when dealing with students.

In essence, whether or not they want to admit it, this is what happened to Nott at George Washington. Administrators were about encountering a situation similar to the recent ruling against Ferrum College, in which Ferrum was forced to settle with the mother of a boy who committed suicide when she claimed that the college was negligently responsible for her sons death because they failed to prevent his suicide even after numerous overt warnings.

Beyond liability worries however, there is also the public relations concerns that must be taken into account. Having a student commit suicide on campus is a pretty harsh media black eye, and certainly something that administrators would prefer to not deal with.

So instead, we end up with a situation like Jordan Nott's. After he was forced to withdraw, Nott was forbidden to even step foot on campus; he would face trespassing charges if he did. For using the "S" word and seeking treatment for depression that had taken over his life, Nott was cast aside by the very institution in a real position to offer him help. As the WaPo points out, this is going to become more and more common. "More schools are adding involuntary-leave policies. Some ask students to sign consent forms so their confidential medical and psychological records can be shared."

It might look like universities are in a rock and hard place type situation: on one hand if they leave students alone and they commit suicide, the school might be blamed; but on the other hand if they remove the student, as GWU did, they can face litigation as well. The solution however, is really quite simple: provide adequate psychological services on campus.

When, in many cases, students are paying tens of thousands of dollars to attend a university, there should be some expectation that that school would provide a safety net in the case of a mental health problem. Among college students, mental health problems are not infrequent. Differing studies have found that between 30% and 40% of freshmen seek help from a student counselor. There is a need for these services.

When a university handles a potentially suicidal student like they did Nott, it sends one clear message: "Seek treatment for suicidal ideation, go home." This type of policy will only discourage future students from seeking help if they need it. GWU should take this opportunity to reevaluate their own practices and set a standard of excellence that other universities can follow.

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