06 September 2006

Dorm Life and Suicide

I've worked as a psychiatric social worker and a counselor in a city whose culture is dominated by the local university. One of my most wrenching cases was that of a student who killed himself by jumping off a ninth floor balcony. Suicide is unfortunately common among college students; figures suggest that suicides occur at a rate of three per day on college campuses.

I've been horrified to read over the last few weeks about cases of universities enforcing policies to evict or suspend students who are seeking treatment for depression and suicidal behavior. Fortunately, it seems that these policies aren't holding up against the civil rights of the students:

Hunter College
A female student attempted to take her life by ODing on Tylenol, then called 911. Upon her release from the hospital, she discovered that she had been locked out of her dorm room. She was allowed to collect her things while escorted by a security guard. Hunter's policy was that a student who attempted to commit suicide could not live in campus housing and was required to take a full semester off. The student's lawsuit agains the university was based on Fair Housing Act, the ADA, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. She received a monetary settlement and the college dropped its suicide policy, which had been in effect for three years.

Allegheny College
A student with a 2-3 year history of depression and suicidal ideation hanged himself in an off-campus fraternity house in 2002. He had been actively involved in treatment, including medication, counseling with university clinicians, and a brief hospitalization. He refused hospitalization several times. His parents sued Allegheny and the clinicians who worked with their son, citing the school's failure to act on clear signs that he was an immediate danger to himself. The school's legal defense involves the student's right to privacy and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which limits the medical information universities may share about their students. The case was settled in favor of Allegheny in 2005.

MIT has the unfortunate reputation of having an elevated suicide rate compared to other colleges and universities. In the last few years, the school has settled two cases out of court. In one case, a student died in a fire in her dorm room, after expressing thoughts of killing herself that day to two other students. It is not clear whether the fire was an accident or an act of self-immolation. In a second case, a student drank cyanide and died in 2001. It appears that her suicide was due in part to the stress of being stalked by a male student, and her parents brought suit against MIT based on their inadequate handling of the stalker. As part of the settlement, MIT expanded their mental health services and provided training for non-clinical staff.

George Washington University
The most heavy-handed case I researched is that of a student at George Washington University, who sought emergency treatment for depression after the suicide of a friend. While hospitalized, he received written communication from the university stating that he had violated the school's code of conduct, was suspended, was evicted from his dorm. He was threatened with arrest if he returned to campus. He is using Fair Housing Act, ADA, Rehabilitation Act, and the DC Human Rights Act to sue the university for discrimination. It appears that the case is still unresolved, and the student is completing his education at another school.

Clinicians have expressed concern that mandatory leave policies will discourage students from seeking support for depression and suicidal ideation. Colleges and universities are working with people who are in a difficult gray area, clinicially speaking. College students are typically 18-22, grappling with many of the issues of adolescence while legally adults. College is also a transition period for families, since students are living away from home for the first time and taking on more responsibility while parents are adjusting to being less involved in the day-to-day lives of their children.

More on this from Inside Higher Education

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