In the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy, mental health experts urge higher education administrators to implement policies that encourage students to seek help early, remove barriers to seek treatment and ensure that students will not be punished when they ask for help.
According to the Bazalon Center for Mental Health Law, some schools have created a difficult situation for students in need: They may encourage students who struggle with mental health problems to seek assistance, but then the school administration follows up with disciplinary measures in an effort to remove mental health problems from the campus.
Last year, the Bazelon Center represented a George Washington University student who voluntarily sought hospital treatment for depression and then faced disciplinary action by the university administration and was suspended from school. The case has now been settled.
In another suit, the center also settled a case with the Hunter College administration that locked a student out of her dorm room after she voluntarily admitted herself to the hospital for treatment of depression. The school paid $165,000 to the student and agreed to change its policy to provide for individualized assessment.
Senior staff attorney Karen Bower said Thursday at a media briefing that the issue is not about liability of the schools.
“It is about stereotypes and prejudices against mental illness,” says Bower. “If schools want to be held liable for something, it should be for excessive uses of alcohol or the Greek system” because of hazing.
Bower adds that no court has found a school liable to prevent suicide.
“Schools often ask us questions to clarify their policies on mental health issues,” she says. “But real liability is when schools discriminate by imposing disciplinary action against students who seek out help.”
Virginia Tech set up counseling services immediately after the tragedy, but it is important for other schools to take more pro-active measures.
Schools “want to be an oasis of tranquility,” says Dr. Robert Bernstein, executive director of the Bazelon Center. “But they have to be responsible for the well-being of the student… they don’t need a court order to tell them that a student is mentally disturbed. It would be liable if they didn’t do something about it.”
If schools continue with this approach, it could actually increase the risk of harm by discouraging students from getting help for themselves or their friends, he adds.
— By Shilpa Banerji
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