Schools and Mental Illness

Download Audio

"You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today," said the Virginia Tech killer, Cho Seung-hui, in the video sent to NBC. A hundred billion chances. But did Virginia Tech really have the latitude to intervene with the troubled young man who wrote "must kill, must kill" in his English homework?

On a range of mental health issues that starts very far from mass murder, American colleges and universities say they are struggling to balance student rights and safety issues — from suicide to campus security.

This hour On Point: after Virginia Tech, what colleges can and cannot do with troubled students.

Quotes from the Show:

"It's a very complicated area for colleges. For one thing, more and more students are appearing on campus with significant mental health problems which they don't have to disclose. Another thing is that you have several different kinds of privacy laws. These do have emergency health and safety exceptions but it's not quick or easy to know exactly what is gonna be such a serious thing that it is a health and safety exception." Tamar Lewin

"Often the college counseling people don't know what's going on even if the kids around might know. It's not something that's gonna come to the counseling center's attention unless the kid goes in." Tamar Lewin

"In general, schools are a little bit weary about putting students on involuntary medical leave which is something that would be in their arsenal. But that's gotten a little more nervous for schools because there have been a couple of lawsuits by kids who were put on involuntary medical leave... . Peculiarly, just last month Virginia became the first state in the nation to pass a law saying that it was illegal for schools to take action against or punish or expel a student who tried to commit suicide." Tamar Lewin Tamar Lewin

"I don't think that the information about students that are concerning just simply comes from sessions in therapy. Much of the information is often available in the student's life. So, part of what we need to be doing is making sure that there is good communication between us as counselors and other people who are working in the university and students that are concerned. ... We can and do act forcefully when we have information available and the danger is imminent." Alejandro Martinez

"There are definitely liability issues if indeed laws are broken in a sense by revealing information that is protected under the complicated and complex privacy laws. It's a very grey area and very difficult and complicated to sort through what the laws provide and how they're applied to the judgment calls that these mental health professionals need to make." Ada Meloy

"Having these policies that automatically place students on involuntary leave or suspend or expel them because they've sought treatment really sends the wrong message. First, it tells the students that there's something wrong with them and it inappropriately isolates them at a time of crisis and removes them from their support system. By discouraging students from getting help, it can actually increase the risk of harm for students themselves or others." Karen Bower

"Universities certainly can take some action. What's important is that they have to do an individualized assessment and assess each individual in a case by case basis. They have to consider objective medical criteria and information and they have to make sure that it's not a pretext for discrimination." Karen Bower


Tamar Lewin, education reporter for the New York TimesAda Meloy, director of legal and regulatory affairs, American Council on Education and former senior university counsel at New York University.

Alejandro Martinez, Director for counseling and psychological services at Stanford University

Karen Bower, staff attorney, Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.

This program aired on April 23, 2007.


More from On Point

Listen Live