Questionable state of campus mental-health services deserves journalists’ scrutiny

Recent media attention, lawsuits and Department of Education regulatory actions have spotlighted what, for many years, has been a shameful secret on campuses across the country — that the default response to discovering a student was suicidally depressed was expulsion.

In a searing recent look at the inadequacies of colleges’ response to mental illness, Newsweek‘s Katie J.M. Baker explored how the adversarial climate that universities have cultivated leads students to shun treatment or to withhold crucial information from campus therapists, for fear of giving the college grounds for disciplinary action.

One disability-rights lawyer told the magazine:

Schools should encourage students to seek treatment. But a lot of policies I see involve excessive use of discipline and involuntary leaves of absence, and they discourage students from asking for the help they need. Ultimately, that makes the campus less safe.

The culprit is a “mandatory withdrawal” policy on the books at many colleges, providing that a student perceived as a danger to anyone, even if only to herself, can be instantly removed from school and forced to provide a clean psychiatric evaluation to get back in — if she can get back in at all. (In some cases, colleges have had students who seek counseling forcibly institutionalized, an overreaction that makes expulsion seem merciful by comparison.)

Suicide can’t be oversimplified or tied to a single risk factor, but it’s clear that many young people struggle with the academic pressure and dislocation of college life, perhaps exacerbating previously existing mental-health issues. Student journalist Claire McNeill at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill presented a visually arresting look at the isolation and anxiety that can lead college students to neglect their health and refrain from seeking help. (I’m eager for Part 2 of her package for Synapse magazine, which promises a look at the legal and regulatory environment.)

Complicating the situation, many colleges misinterpret federal privacy law as precluding contacting a family member to intercede when a student seeks treatment or counseling even for a life-threatening condition. (A recently filed bill in Congress proposes to clarify the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act so that colleges could alert parents without penalty when “necessary to protect the health, safety or welfare of an individual.”)

Although suicide is statistically rarer among young people enrolled in college than among those of comparable age who aren’t in school, one 2011 survey of 1,150 colleges found suicide running a close second (behind auto accidents) as the leading cause of death among students.

A recently enacted Illinois statute threatens to make matters even worse. Billed as a campus-safety measure, the law requires all Illinois schools and colleges, public and private, to tell police within 24 hours if a student appears dangerous either to himself or to others, making no distinction between a self-harming student struggling with depression and a would-be mass shooter. The only response to depression that might be more counterproductive than expulsion is arrest.

Throwing suicidal young people out of school isn’t just an educationally and medically dubious judgment call — it may also be against the law. Students hastily removed from campus without an opportunity to explain themselves have successfully challenged the removals as a violation of due process. And the Department of Education recently warned colleges that denying a student access to campus services because she is perceived to suffer from mental illness may also violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Is your college part of the mental-health solution in your community, or is it part of the problem? It’s a difficult but important story to which journalists increasingly are awakening.

For more recent examples of coverage spotlighting the inadequacies of college mental-health services, see this article on the SPLC’s Tumblr. To read about how to “audit” your own college’s policies for dealing with suicidal students, check out this example from the SPLC’s archives.