Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. In addressing concerns about student safety, colleges may view themselves as caught between treating students as autonomous adults or acting in loco parentis-even, at times, communicating with parents against a student's wishes.
To address this issue, The Jed Foundation, the nation's leading nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting mental health among college students, held a roundtable discussion in April to clarify the issues of law and liability surrounding student mental health. Twenty experts in higher education law, administration and mental health convened at APA headquarters for the daylong meeting. The group discussed ways that "good law, ethics, clinical care and risk management all converge to promote mental health in colleges and universities," says APA Ethics Director Stephen Behnke, JD, PhD, who attended the meeting.
The discussion centered on the implications of several federal laws, such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, says Jed Foundation program director Joanna Locke, MD. In addition to legislation, high-profile lawsuits, such as Shin v. MIT, have left some university officials struggling to understand how they can best help suicidal students and yet also adhere to their legal and ethical mandates regarding confidentiality, she adds.
Elizabeth Shin was a MIT student when she died by apparent suicide in 2000. She had received university mental health counseling, yet her parents claim they were never notified of her suicide threats, a claim that MIT disputes. Shin's parents filed a $27 million wrongful-death lawsuit, which settled out of court with the details closed to the public.
In a 2006 case, the City University of New York agreed to pay $65,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a student who had been barred from her dormitory room at Hunter College because she was hospitalized after a suicide attempt.
Though the roundtable was held just two weeks after the Virginia Tech shootings, that incident didn't dominate the discussion, says Behnke.Instead, participants provided recommendations that The Jed Foundation will release in a formal report this fall.
"Student mental health is nowat the forefront of everyone's mind," adds Locke. "It was an extremely salient topic before Virginia Tech, but Virginia Tech has opened discussion on a lot of campuses where there may have not been the discussion before."
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