Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Suicidal Students


This past March, The Washington Post ran an article about a college student who was forced to withdraw from George Washington University after he was hospitalized for suicidal ideation.

About 2 a.m. one sleepless night, sophomore Jordan Nott checked himself into George Washington University Hospital.
He was depressed, he said, and thinking about suicide.

Within a day and a half of arriving there, he got a letter from a GWU administrator saying his "endangering behavior" violated the code of student conduct. He faced possible suspension and expulsion from school, the letter said, unless he withdrew and deferred the charges while he got treatment.
In the meantime, he was barred from campus.


I thought of writing a post back then, but perhaps there was more to the story? How could a student be dismissed for suicidal ideation? It's like the thought police, and does the school dismiss every student hospitalized for depression (--let's face it, you just don't get hospitalized unless you say you're going to kill yourself, so almost by definition....)? Not that the media has ever biased a story, but I was left hoping this just couldn't be and that there was more to it. Just in case the reader isn't sympathetic enough to this poor young man's plight, the article goes on to tell us that his depression began after a close friend, his would-be roommate, died by throwing himself out the window while Jordan pounded outside his locked door. The event is a few years old and the young man now attends another university-- it's news now because he's suing GW.

Just the idea got me worked up: if college students know they can be suspended/expelled/dismissed for suicidal thoughts, of course they won't get treatment. Un- and under-treated depressives will proliferate, students who might otherwise succeed may fail out, suicide rates will rise. Just the idea that someone should suffer what amounts to an academic public hanging for Seeking Care, is outrageous from this psychiatrist's point of view.

So, I journeyed over to The Last Psychiatrist where he/she is posting about a Hunter College student who successfully sued the university after being expelled for a suicide attempt. The student returned from a four-day hospitalization after an overdose to find her dorm room locks had been changed. The school settled for $65,000, probably a lot less than the settlements on cases where parents sue the schools after a child has had a completed suicide.

What surprised me was that The Last Psychiatrist sides with the schools: he titles his post "Psychiatrists On the Wrong Side of Civil Rights, Again" and his link to the article about the lawsuit is titled Hunter College Caves to Lawyers. He feels suicidal students should be dismissed from colleges:

The problem with this statement is its logical conclusion: when can a school exclude students who seek help? Never? Let's say the next time she tries suicide by turning the gas on, and she blows the dorm up. Oops?

Hmmm....what about on a case-by-case basis? What they're doing with these blanket, or partial blanket (GW has 200 students/year treated for depression &/or suicidal thoughts, they don't all get thrown out) is making it so students don't get treatment. Face it, college students commit suicide, sometimes they give warning signals and attempt to get help first, often they don't. Just because you're afraid you'll get kicked out of school if you tell someone you're thinking of blowing up the dorm, doesn't mean you Won't do it. It's a little like being a pedophile who wants to get treatment: the barriers to getting treatment may outweigh the risk of not getting help (go to town, ClinkShrink).

I brought this topic up at Coffee with the Judge and another friend this morning (my dog Max's playgroup). I was surprised that they both felt suicidal students should be dismissed: too much liability for the school-- if the school is aware there's a risk and a student suicides, the parent might then sue. The Judge thought that all students treated for depression should be forced to sign agreements that their parents can be informed of their illness as a condition of attendance, so the school could be released from liability. What an interesting thought.

And to think, with all those commercials, with mentally ill celebrities coming out, with mental health awareness issues and disability discrimination legislation, one might have believed we were destigmatizing mental illness. I don't think so.