US colleges see tough choices on troubled students
18 Apr 2007 21:37:45 GMT
By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON, April 18 (Reuters) - U.S. universities are performing a delicate balancing act in dealing with emotionally troubled students amid worries over being sued for doing either too much or too little, administrators said on Wednesday.
Virginia Tech's administration is facing intense scrutiny over whether it failed to heed warning signs about Cho Seung-Hui months before the South Korean student shot dead 32 people and then himself on Monday.
"The question is: what duty do schools have to protect and take care of their students?" said Dr. Victor Schwartz, a psychiatrist and dean of students at New York's Yeshiva University.
The balancing act is, on the one hand, protecting a student's legal privacy rights and the confidentiality of medical or mental health services while, on the other hand, ensuring campus safety by notifying authorities or parents.
"It is a tightrope walk, indeed," said Chris Brownson, director of the mental health center at University of Texas in Austin, where a gunman shot dead 13 people from a campus tower in 1966.
At the same time, lawsuits by students and their families have left universities fearful about legal liability in handling particularly suicidal students.
Administrators said that in recent years they are seeing more and more students with diagnosed mental disorders on campus.
In deciding how to deal with a troubled student who poses a potential threat to himself or others, administrators said they are constrained by privacy laws limiting information they can provide about students to authorities and even to families.
Mental health or medical professionals also may be obligated to keep details about such a student confidential.
Virginia Tech officials and professors have said Cho had been accused of stalking female students, was taken to a mental health facility due to suicide worries and produced obscene, violent writings that raised alarms.
Dr. Jerald Kay, chairman of the psychiatry department at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, said there is enormous variability among schools in quality and support for student mental health services.
"There are some institutions that support college mental health much better than others. Frankly, in some institutions there are virtually no resources devoted to college mental health," Kay said.
Lawsuits have accused schools both of doing too little and too much.
The family of Elizabeth Shin, who died in a fire she set in her dormitory in 2000, sued Massachusetts Institute of Technology, accusing MIT of not providing her adequate care and failing to inform relatives of her psychiatric problems. The family reached a settlement with MIT last year.
A Pennsylvania jury last year found Allegheny College was not negligent in the suicide of Charles Mahoney after his parents sued, saying school counselors did not intervene to save him despite signs of danger.
George Washington University last year reached a settlement with Jordan Nott, who sued after being barred from campus due to officials' concern over suicidal behavior. He had checked himself into a campus hospital in 2004 for depression and suicidal thoughts, but the school decided he posed a danger, prompting him to leave.
"I've talked to many directors of counseling centers and people in university administration," Schwartz said. "In thinking how to behave, people are picking which lawsuit they'd rather defend, in terms of contacting a family versus taking a very hard line on confidentiality."
Very tricky in how to really deal with mentally ill people
while walking along that legal tight rope.
It kind of hits home because a close uncle of mine was
just admitted to a mental hospital as it seems the cancer
of his jaw(which he had partially removed due to years of
heavy smoking) now seems to have spread to his brain
that has sent him into a depression, halucinations, paranoia,
and suicidal/homicidal tendancies. Luckily my aunt finally
sought to get him help but, only after he had pulled a gun
causing her to run for her life.
Having worked for some time in a mental health facility and
such I learned many times mentally ill people are turned away
from hospitals until threats or attempts on their own or others
lives are made. Tragically, sometimes, nothing is done until it's too late.