12/07/2004

Academic Suicide

OverLawyered points out this piece in the New York Times regarding student-suicide lawsuits against colleges.

Nicole Thompson had been at Columbia University for only a few weeks when she went out drinking with a group of friends downtown last year and became separated from them. She had skipped her medication for bipolar disorder. Now it was 3 a.m. and, crying and in a panic, she called friends; she told them, she said, that she "just wished the traffic would take me out."

Although she made it back to campus safely, her friends had already notified Columbia that they were worried about her. For Columbia officials, it was the first clue that Ms. Thompson faced any kind of mental health problems.

"I wasn't on Columbia's radar at all," said Ms. Thompson, who is back on campus now after being forced to take a medical leave.

Increasingly, college officials and mental health experts have come to realize that many of the most vulnerable students - the ones prone to self-injury and suicide - are like Ms. Thompson: they never go near the counseling centers or reveal anything about their experience before college. As a result, colleges are stepping up efforts to find them and to get them into treatment, sometimes forcing them to leave temporarily.
The majority of the article talks about the pros and cons of requiring potentially suicidal college students to seek treatment or to leave campus. A major factor is the risk of litigation:
Suicide - the second-biggest cause of death among college students - can be costly, injuring reputations and prompting litigation. The suicide of a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Elizabeth Shin, in 2000, and strings of suicides at New York University, George Washington University and the University of Illinois, have drawn wide attention. There has also been a rise in lawsuits involving student suicides.

Ann H. Franke, a vice president of United Educators, a company that insures 1,200 universities, colleges and schools, said suicide prevention had risen in priority as claims had risen; her company, Ms. Franke said, now has a "handful" of claims, up from none six years ago.

"They can be very severe claims financially," Ms. Franke said, "not to mention the emotional and reputational impact they can have on a school."

In a closely watched case, the family of Elizabeth Shin has sued M.I.T. for $27 million.
The Shin case seems to be a particularly egregious one, and although I'm still not entirely convinced that anyone should be held responsible for failing to stop someone else's suicide, the circumstances surrounding Ms. Shins's suicide do seem to indicate that the M.I.T. mental health infrastructure let her down.

I think it's reasonable for colleges to require students who make threats of suicide to seek treatment. Although I can certainly forsee a situation where a suicidal student faced with suspension would choose a Final Exit, my impression is that this sort of "early warning" approach is likely to prevent far more suicides than it causes. My inner cynic sees this measure as less of a "help the student" gesture and more of a "legal self-defense" maneuver. If the end result is that people considering suicide get some help, then that end justifies these means.