Friday, September 01, 2006

Try to Kill Yourself? Not Here: Colleges

This story on MSNBC reports on the current policy of universities expelling students who are suicidal. Are they right or wrong to add insult to injured psyches?


Anonymous M.K. said...

I think in today's litigious society they have no choice. A number of institutions have been sued by the families of deceased students - the families believe the institution should have somehow known the student was suicidal and stepped in to prevent it (in loco parentis). As long as those lawsuits continue, I don't know that colleges and universities have any choice but to try to remove students.

6:24 PM  
Blogger Dr. Lisa said...

To add what m.k. said--though I hate the situation we are in--combine the "you should have known and stopped it" lawsuits with the laws that prohibit you from discussing a student's performance with anybody but the student, and you basically have a recipe for a complete Catch-22. I had a student disappear for two weeks--I was sick with worry--and the uni admin advised I report it to the police, and when his mother called--also frantic--I was told to refer her to the police and not tell her anything myself in case there was something wrong and she wound up suing me. It's crazy and very sad.

7:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wrong. Do your research. Would you ban a student for going into a diabetic coma? Before anyone comments "it is not the same thing", please, as mentioned above, do your research.

10:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't agree with the university's approach -- and, like above said, it's a form of medical discrimination -- but kids who are suicidal do not need to be off at college. That can be a horrible environment if you're having these sorts of thoughts.

11:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now I remember why I became a lawyer. So I don’t engage in this superficial analysis. Colleges have only been held liable under malpractice theories: that is, they began to treat students for illnesses (mental or physical) and then stopped in the middle or provided a very low standard of care. However, these distinctions are not really what non-lawyers are interested in.

Schools have been losing “suicide expulsion” suits when the student didn’t do anything overly illegal or dangerous. Most of the time, the school’s liability arises simply because some just-out-of college administrator decides that they can ruin some unpopular kid by saying that he looks dangerous or – gasp – says he is depressed.

Personally, I don’t like people who try to kill themselves. Most of the time they are attention-starved whiney girls who would be better off as housewives than pretending to be intellectuals. Many families consider suicide to be a sign of weakness, and will disown people who try it. So, if a school wants to expel people that actually try and kill themselves and do property damage in the process, after providing them with an opportunity to rebut the charge that they damaged property, they can be expelled.

(Oh, medical discrimination us generally perfectly legal and a good idea. There are some exceptions to the rule – such as the ADA and similar state statutes – but it is very difficult to run a school or a business when people are trying to get attention by slashing themselves at incorrect angles.)

3:16 PM  
Blogger Mike M. said...

As a Plaintiffs lawyer -- that is one who makes his living bringing suits agains those whose negligence leads to injuries -- I think the notion of a university abrogating it's responsibility toward an ill student based on the alleged fear of a law suit is intellectually dishonest and loathsome. Personally, I know of no suit, sucessful or otherwise, where a university that acted in good faith in trying to assist a depressed student has been sued. This is simply a fig leaf for colleges trying to get rid of difficult, unpopular, or high maintainence students.

Depression is a difficult illness. I know. I have suffered from it. It is difficult to treat and can recur with little or no warning. But to discriminate against someone who suffers from it becuase it's a lot of trouble to put up with them is moral cowardice of the highest order. And to blame it on the legal system is hypocracy of the same degree.

5:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I agree it's wrong to discriminate against students with a mental illness, I think what happens when there is a suicide on campus is most important. I don't even see it, as a professor, as a liability issue. It's a campus-wide issue.

At my small college one student killed himself in a horrible, brutal manner a few years back. (Oh, and anon, this student was MALE, a scientist with a 4.0, and highly motivated.) The entire dorm had to be evacuated because of the chemicals he used. This was followed by 2 more suicides and 2 attempted suicides in the NEXT WEEK. When the sirens rang in town, you just wanted to hide.

Each of these 5 students had at least 1 roommate each. Each of these 5 students had at least 5 faculty members and hundreds of classmates and friends. On a campus of 1500, the entire semester was destroyed and the psyches of many, many students threatened.

I think from a campus point of view, it is important to protect the suicidal student (by sending them home and by keeping in close contact with the student and the family), but also to protect the campus as a whole.

8:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mike, Let’s take this one step at a time: what responsibility does a university have to its students that it doesn’t have to, say, its faculty and staff. I don’t think any. Most, if not all, states have abandoned in loco parentis. So, just because someone is a student doesn’t mean that the minute they step on campus, there is some sort of “special” duty to them, beyond which the school owes everyone or beyond which the school endeavors to accept.

So, if a school provides faculty, students and staff with an infirmary, such infirmary has a duty to practice according to the standard of the profession. But this is just garden-variety malpractice. If a school provides people with mental health counseling, it has to provide people with the same level of service that the profession would provide people with (schools have been losing or settling because they failed to this.) The problem is that some administrators think that mental health counseling isn’t a form of health care (which, presumably everyone would benefit from), but rather a form of discipline that is necessary to control the students with. Therefore, it is really only available to students, and since actual professionals are not involved, it is done in a very crappy manner.

Anon, If a student’s actions cause property damage or necessitate the evacuation of an entire building, then he can be disciplined for that. But, even if he was stone cold sober (or not a nut), he could have been disciplined for that as well. I would initiate expulsion proceedings -- on the sole issue of whether he caused the damage – and if he did, I would send him home. College isn’t for people with mental problems. This kid had more problems then could be treated at a college.

6:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In my jurisdiction of Ontario, Canada, expelling a student for reason of mental illness is illegal under the Ontario Human Rights Code. Depression is considered a disability under the code, and it must be "accommodated to the point of undue hardship." Expulsion is not accommodation.

5:39 PM  
Anonymous Hillary said...

Suicide is something completely foreign to me yet I definitely pity for those who are so desperate to take their own lives.
From a completely non-legal point of view... I'm torn. Obviously if one is suicidal one is not fit to be on college campus. They need help right away and not subjected to more stress. In fact I wish the Universities could have expelled certain people I know who ended up being pressured to stay in school even under severe depression and they got worse and worse.
However, from what I've read in the article, the Universities seem to be more defensive and not enacting these laws for the benefit of the students.
However how would one define 'suicidal'? the suckers who couldn't get it right the first time? Geeez. Give me a college student who hasn't at least contemplated suicide.

8:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"College isn’t for people with mental problems."

Whew! What ignorance this subject portrays amongst supposedly educated persons. I will assume that it is a matter of stigma associated with mental illness. To make blanket statements such as the one above and other comments posted is horrifying.

I attended a business school ranked top 10 in the WORLD. I graduated with nearly perfect grades. My IQ is near 160. Here is the kicker -- I am mentally ill. I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Not a light case, but one which requires weekly visits to a Dr. and medication. I am rated as "severe".

I am extremely successful from a monetary standpoint and have a beautiful and caring wife. I do struggle very much at times and it can be tormenting. I have many times thought that ending it all would be an option but I will never do it because it is against my core belief system.

Did I not belong in college?

I would very much like to post my name; however, I am almost certain some of you may recognize it. I can see how our society has not come very far in their acceptance of the mentally ill.

Some of the bullshit I am reading is spewing...

By the way, Professor, I enjoy this blog. Read about it in a newspaper and have been hooked ever since.

10:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the above:

I think it's important to make a distinction between "mentally ill" and "suicidal." They are not the same, and the larger issue here is college students who are suicidal.

12:13 PM  
Blogger cluelesscarolinagirl said...

Amen, anon 12:13.

A suicidal student does NOT need to be in college. College is stressful to even serene psyches. They need to concentrate on getting better in a lower stress environment.

Then by all means they should be warmly welcomed back into the college community.

Depression needs to be treated by an experienced professional not the usual birth control pill dispensing hacks at the Student Health Center.

9:03 AM  
Blogger Jeff the Baptist said...

This is something that can't be covered by blanket rules.

A friend of mine in college was mentally unstable. He tried to kill himself freshman year and was put on prosac. A few years later he "stalked" at least one ex-girlfriend. She took out a restraining order against him. But he also graduated with an engineering degree. His mental illness was largely manageable and he was able to function as a student. But had the university kicked him out after his repeat relationship problems (since one ex-girlfriend shared all our classes), then I wouldn't have blamed them.

Another friend took a leave of absense because of family problems. Her mother was dying of cancer and wasn't expected to live out the semester. She took the spring semester off and her mother died shortly thereafter. She came and visited a few times and started back in the fall. It was a wise decision on her part and the university was flexible.

It is perfectly reasonable for a University to send someone home. The university needs to consider what is best for that student and all students. If someone is a danger to themselves or others and can't (or won't) be treated within the university setting, then sending them home (or at least forcing them to leave the University setting) is perfectly acceptable.

4:53 PM  
Blogger Mike M. said...

Nice article that shows the sucessful suits against colleges are for throwing mentally ill students out, not for trying to help them.

Funny how people who are worried about getting sued always worry about the wrong things. If they would say to themselves, let's do the decent and honorable thing and not worry about suits one way or the other, they would have very little to worry about.

6:49 PM  
Blogger Joan said...

I think is insane to expell students with problems. They need to encourge a program to help students that have depression and need help.

Not to expell them and make them more misserable.

12:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok, reality check for the anon lawyer:

1) the vast majority of university administrators are not "just out of college"--most are mid-career or later--it'd be crazy for universities to put fresh-outs in administrative positions. You might be talking about a staff-level person, but seriously--untenured administrators? They just aren't common.


2) ALL university adminstrators have better things to do than attempt to "ruin" some "unpopular" student. Really. Even with annoying students, most of us roll our eyes and move on. Nobody cares enough about students to go to this kind of effort to "ruin" them. It's simply not worth it, and although it's kind of fun to think that universities are just full of petty little weeners chomping at the bit to ruin some's just not a likely scenario. Most of us are too busy caught in endless forms about travel reimbursements, grade changes, incompletes, student payroll, etc etc to volunteer to go through rigamarole to pick on somebody who is merely unpopular.

Seriously depressed people can manifest all manner of self-destructive and destructive behaviors that merit expulsion on their face--poor grade performance, failure to show up for classes (on scholarship), cheating because the work effort is just too much to deal with, etc etc. It doesn't have to be about some "excuse" to get rid of them.

Chaser has a better point than people acknowledge. If a student is NOT seeking help from the university but is obviously depressed, there is not much a prof can do for them besides talk to them--you can not call their parents or other gaurdians. Without great documenation, you can not intervene, and then if you intervene ineffectually, it may just worsen matters and threaten your own job. Chaser's admin told her to say nothing--that's the spot you get. Defy your bosses? Not smart if you are pre-tenure.)

The best place for a suicidally depressed student is under medical supervision, not a dorm. Can't we do any better than expelling them or ignoring them? Like probation for the student to go home, receive care, and then return when they have stabilized? Why is that so hard?

3:25 PM  
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8:56 PM  

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