Students, Parents And Suicide: What's The Role Of The University?

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The William Barton Rogers Building at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as seen in 2016. (Joe Difazio for WBUR)
The William Barton Rogers Building at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as seen in 2016. (Joe Difazio for WBUR)

With Jane Clayson

When a college student is in crisis, does the school have a legal and moral obligation to tell the parents?


Anemona Hartocollis, national correspondent on higher education for The New York Times. (@anemonanyc)

Peter Lake, professor of higher education law at Stetson University and director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University College of Law.

Ben Locke, senior director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Penn State and founder of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health.

Veena Velury, junior at San Jose State University and president of her school's Active Minds chapter, an organization that promotes student advocacy in mental health.


On her reporting: 

Hartocollis: "The issue that interested me: What is the right of parents to know?

Suicides happen on campus every day, it turns out, for a variety of reasons. It's a very difficult balancing act for the schools and for the families. My goal was to explore how that works. In this case, the family discovered only after his death — his mother discovered while reading his journals that he had been flunking his classes. He hadn't told his parents... but in many instances, one doesn't know in great detail the kids' grades. You don't see it [the transcript], without explicit consent from your child."

On the recent rulings:

Lake: "The Massachusetts ruling points out that it's important for us to actively intervene, but we won't always succeed. And not every time we are not able to stop a suicide is a failure, just a matter of legal liability. I think the Mass. SJC is encouraging us to actively engage with our students, but not engage in such a way that violates their rights to privacy or autonomy, or even interferes with the basic academic mission to build resiliency and independence.

What we're seeing is that, at some point, in an engagement strategy, the question of when to involve the parents is on the table. And in some cases that's to the great benefit of an individual — other times it actually could be a source of challenge... we have to be careful not to put a student at risk. Sometimes the family is the problem."

How mental health treatment has changed in the U.S.:

Locke: "The key thing that has changed over the last 15 years is that we forget that our nation has been in a massive national suicide prevention intervention, with hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars spent, K-12 and in college to essentially identify and refer students at risk, so that students in elementary and middle and high school already know how to identify and refer peers. What we're seeing in counseling centers around the country is actually a dramatic success, where the demand of students coming in is going up every year — those students are more and more representative of students who might be at risk to themselves to suicide. The challenge is: all of these national interventions did not plan ahead for the increased demand in clinical services."

What about mental health for non-students?

Locke: "The mental health providers have to balance the students' expressed and actual needs with family's interest. Folks are not really talking about the fact that college is actually protective. The rate of suicide among college students is at least half if not even a third that of the general population. And it raises an interesting question of whether we are expected to treat college students differently than the general population of similarly-aged peers. And if so, why?"

Caller comments: 

"My counselor connected me to a lot of support on campus that helped me to heal. That was more effective, in my personal case, than contacting my parents." — student from NC.

"There's a huge disconnect between the training programs for professors - who are on the front lines - and students themselves."

Graduate instructor from Missouri

"Even with FERPA and HIPPA waivers in place, the school would not share information with us." — parent from MD.

From The Reading List:

The New York Times: "His College Knew of His Despair. His Parents Didn’t, Until It Was Too Late.” — "Every year, parents send their children to college, trusting that they will be well, or that word will come if they are not. Ms. Burton had lived every parent’s nightmare: a child flunking out, sinking into despair, his parents the last to know. Her discovery set off a wave of pain and soul-searching but also a campaign to strip away some of the veils of confidentiality that colleges say protect the privacy and autonomy of students who are learning to be adults.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death, after accidents, for college-age adults in the United States. The number of college students seeking treatment for anxiety and depression has risen sharply over the past few years, and schools have in turn stepped up their efforts in mental health research and intervention. Even so, families have continued to put pressure on them to take greater responsibility for students’ well-being."

WBUR: "MIT Not Responsible For Student's Suicide, Mass. High Court Rules" — "The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Monday that MIT was not negligent and therefore not responsible for the 2009 suicide of a graduate student on its campus, upholding a lower court's decision. But the court found colleges and universities do hold some responsibility in protecting students from suicide.

The case was closely watched in the higher education community, as a ruling against MIT could have changed the landscape in terms of colleges' and universities' responsibility to prevent student suicide."

The Boston Globe: "Mass. high court rules colleges have legal duty to prevent students from committing suicide" — "Professors and staff members at Massachusetts colleges can be sued if they fail to act after learning a student was considering suicide, according to a ruling issued Monday by the state’s highest court that for the first time outlines the institutions’ legal duty to prevent students from killing themselves.

While the decision created new liability for colleges and universities, Justice Scott L. Kafker’s ruling did not eliminate all legal protections for schools, professors, and support staff.

'It is definitely not a generalized duty to prevent suicide,' Kafker wrote. 'Nonclinicians are also not expected to discern suicidal tendencies where the student has not stated his or her plans or intentions to commit suicide.'"

Center For Collegiate Mental Health: 2017 Annual Report

When you send your kids off to college, you hope they’ll do well, and if they don’t, that someone from the school will let you know. But that’s not what happens. Federal education laws prevent many colleges from reaching out to parents when their children are in crisis. Student suicides at colleges across the country are raising questions about that practice.

This hour, On Point: college students, mental health, and who has the right to know.

- Jane Clayson

This program aired on May 15, 2018.


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