Most college campuses have counseling services to deal with students who may have a potentially serious mental health problem, but not all institutions have a well-defined policy that benefits students while addressing the school’s concerns about liability.
The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, a national legal advocacy organization, has offered a model policy to help schools develop a non-discriminatory, non-punitive approach to students with mental health problems.
“Supporting Students: A Model Policy for Colleges and Universities” outlines some guiding principles for institutions, including how to decide if the school should impose an involuntary leave on a particular student and how and where to accommodate a student who can safely remain on campus.
“We want to send a clear message to students that it is safe to seek mental health services,” says executive director Dr. Robert Bernstein.
The policy, among other things, suggests that colleges refer students for counseling when they exhibit academic or behavior problems that appear to be a result of depression or mental illness. Other recommendations include having emergency psychiatric services available to students at all times and accommodating students with mental health conditions by allowing them to take a reduced course load or postpone assignments and exams.
According to the 2006 National College Health Assessment, 43.8 percent of the 94,806 students surveyed reported they had “felt so depressed it was difficult to function” during the past year, and 9.3 percent said they had “seriously considered suicide” during that timeframe. Students also named depression as one of the top 10 impediments to academic performance.
Most campuses have counseling services that are confidential and free of charge. Howard University, for example, has a clinically trained staff and a crisis hotline.
“If the case warrants intervention, and it is a matter of life and death, then we try to support the person by asking them to go to the hospital voluntarily,” says Dr. Ayana Watkins-Northern, the director of clinical services and chief psychologist of the Howard University Counseling Service. “If the person refuses, then D.C. Metropolitan Police is contacted. It is not a frequent occurrence, but there are times when, thank God, we had done it.”
But legal experts at the Bazelon Center say that too often, when students are in crisis, colleges are more concerned about potential legal liability. They often respond punitively, requiring the student to leave the campus, sometimes against the student’s will.
“Such punitive measures discourage students from seeking help and isolate them from social and professional supports at a time of crisis, increasing the risk of harm,” says Bazelon Center senior staff attorney Karen Bower.
At Florida A&M University, the decision to stay in school is made jointly with the students, says Dr. Yolanda Bogan, the director of FAMU’s counseling center.
“If the student is suicidal, they may decide to go home or return to the university setting, at which time we could resume counseling services,” she says. “But we have never had to forcefully ask someone to leave the campus due to depression or suicidal tendencies.”
At United Tribes Technical College, there is a clinical center where social workers help students with mental health problems as well as students battling drug and alcohol abuse.
“We have never had an issue of having to evict a student from our campus due to a mental health problem,” says Francis Azure, a spokesman from the president’s office. “If the student is suicidal, it is documented and the clinical center subsequently takes care of it. We have not faced any legal problem.”
Bower says the Bazelon Center’s policy is not an attempt to address the full range of services that institutions should undertake to promote student mental health. “But it offers a fair and humane approach to dealing with students who are in crisis,” she says.
— By Shilpa Banerji
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