More threads by Retired


Have you encountered any pressure from the school you attend in connection with an illness you may be dealing with? This is what's happening in the U.S. as a result of concern about lawsuits and students dealing with mental illness:

A Cornell junior was meeting regularly with a therapist at the university's counseling center in Ithaca, N.Y. But late last fall, when she told her therapist about her increasingly strong urge to kill herself, the woman received an ultimatum from the school she loved so much: she had to get better or she would have to leave. So she did what any crafty 20-year-old would do. She tried to carve out a third option--feigning improvement by, as she put it, acting "as normal as I could." When she agreed to spend her winter break at a psychiatric hospital, the university stopped threatening to kick her out.

But a tragic result, say psychiatrists and student advocates, is that emotionally distressed students may be less willing to come forward and get the professional help they need.

Another unintended consequence: hypervigilant colleges are getting sued by students who allege they are being discriminated against for being mentally unstable. The U.S. Department of Education last year warned at least a handful of schools that receive federal aid that the Americans with Disabilities Act protects people with mental problems. Several students who were suspended after threatening to commit suicide are in the process of suing their schools; others have been offered settlements before their cases reached the courts. In a sign of just how flummoxed the world of higher education has become over the issue of suicide, United Educators, which insures more than 1,100 colleges and secondary schools, issued a bulletin last month noting that when dealing with emotionally distressed students, schools are left "with the quandary of being sued no matter what they do."

The pressure to inoculate schools from legal liability has sometimes led them to come across as shockingly insensitive. In a case study of apparent hamhandedness, Jordan Nott had spent less than 48 hours in the psychiatric ward he checked himself into, in October 2004, when he received a terse letter from George Washington University informing the sophomore that he had been suspended for being a danger to himself and others. "It was a huge slap in the face," says Nott, 20. "They don't hand out this letter that says, 'We want you to get help.' What it says is, 'You've been suspended; you've been barred from campus.'" The letter went on to explain that if he returned to campus, he would be arrested. Rather than contest the suspension, he switched schools and is now suing for compensatory damages.

Litigious parents are also to blame for the tough line. After Elizabeth Shin died in 2000 in a dorm-room fire at M.I.T. within hours of threatening to kill herself, the sophomore's parents filed a $27 million lawsuit against her psychiatrists, as well as her house master and a dean of student life, for failing to take adequate precautions. (They had scheduled an appointment to see her the following day.) When a judge last year refused to throw out the suit, alarm bells went off in administrative offices across the country

Many schools are trying to emulate the University of Illinois, which requires students who express suicidal thoughts to see a counselor for four sessions if they want to remain in school. More than 1,800 students have gone through the program since it was launched in the early '80s, and none have committed suicide. Only one participant was forced to leave.

Wow. That is interesting and brings back a lot of memories for me.

I would imagine most schools have some sort of policy about suicidal threats?

When I was a sophomore I wrote a letter to a friend. I can't remember exactly what I said, but I must have said something about suicide and she shared it with the women's dean. I went home for a break and my father told me they had called him and told him I couldn't go back to school because of that. I was horrifed.

I did end up going into a hospital for two months and took the rest of the year off. I took a class from a local community college. Really, home was the worst place to be though.

I went back (lived off campus with my sister) and graduated with honors. I was determined to do that. I don't think they handled my problem very well at all however. I'm not sure what a school should do.


I'm not sure what a school should do.

What troubles me about this is that students are dismissed because of the fear of lawsuits against the institution with little concern for the wellbeing of the student.

It's perhaps an indication of a broader problem facing all aspects of life in the U.S. where decisions about the most routine policies are determined on the basis of how a lawsuit might affect that policy.

:eek:fftopic: well only slightly...I happen to live in the U.S. for part of the year and I see decisions in our community are made strictly on the basis of avoiding the threat of a lawsuit.

The result is a society which binds itself into a knot because no one is allowed to do anything for fear of triggering litigation.

Back on topic: Students are made to avoid therapy, if they know their therapists will turn them in if they report suicidal feelings. How can that be beneficial to students needing crucial therapy?
I can kind of see both sides. I guess schools don't want the responsibility of having a suicidal student, but on the other hand I think their policies sometimes are quite cold and uncaring.

I looked up the policy of the school I attended and basically you still get kicked out if you exhibit suicidal tendencies AND self-harm tendencies. I guess they can't have the liability of someone like that?

I don't know what the answers could be. It seems like they could come up with something better than kicking someone out. Possibly mental health services have been cut in many schools so they don't have the resources to deal with it either.

The result is a society which binds itself into a knot because no one is allowed to do anything for fear of triggering litigation.

I agree with this. There's a lot of fear of being sued in today's world.

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
On the other hand, I don't think they're really avoiding litigation - postponing it, perhaps, because they are counting on the distressed student being unable or unwilling to sue. But this is without doubt a discrimination issue and in my opinion it's only a matter of time before an organization like NMHA or CMHA takes action.
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