Managing Suicidal Students on Campus: Get Help & Stay? Get Help & Get Out?

Girl_hand_hair_260942_lWhile most universities offer support for students with mental health conditions, some who have taken psychological leave have found the process of returning to school difficult or near impossible.

Changes in federal law in recent years affect an institution of higher education’s ability to withdraw suicidal students involuntarily. The law limits what you can do to help suicidal and other at-risk students; but it doesn’t eliminate all your options. Remove these students from campus through a forced medical withdrawal and face an ADA lawsuit for discrimination against the student. Leave the student on campus struggling and be sued for not having the services available to adequately treat the student’s medical condition.

Mental health problems are common on college campuses: Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college-age students, and a 2011 American College Health Association–National College Health Assessment survey found that 30% of undergraduates reported experiencing serious depression during their college careers.

To understand this catch-22, consider the 2005 case against George Washington University involving plaintiff, Jordan Nott, a straight-A GW Freshman.

After his close friend and hallmate committed suicide in 2004, Nott sought treatment for depression from the University Counseling Center, according to court documents.  Under the influence of the prescription sleeping pill Ambien, Nott experienced suicidal thoughts. He told his roommate, who accompanied him to George Washington University Hospital. Within 12 hours of his psychiatric hospitalization, Nott received a disciplinary letter barring his return to campus that semester. The university subsequently leveled disciplinary charges against Nott.

He was charged with violation of the school code of conduct, which prohibited self-harm, but Nott chose to withdraw from the school and matriculate elsewhere.  Shortly after, Nott filed suit against GW.

Commenting on the lawsuit, a Washington Post editorial  read … “campus suicides can raise serious liability concerns for universities. And it may be reasonable to ask a suicidal student — to the extent that ensuring his or her safety is beyond the school’s ability — to take a leave of absence. But disciplinary proceedings? Charges?  Since when does being sick constitute a disciplinary problem? No school would use such language about a student with cancer or some other life-threatening physical illness.”

As this story illustrates, managing suicidal students on campus creates unique challenges. It is of course the desire of any campus to get help to students who need it. But, the laws that govern how to deal with suicidal students can create conflicts with what the school deems best to achieve that goal. Finding that balance in each individual case requires knowing the laws and having a strategy in place.

To learn what your university can do to comply with the federal law and help your students in need while keeping the rest of your campus secure, join prominent higher education attorney Natasha Baker for a must-see 60-minute webinar,  “Threat to Self Policies on Campus: How to Manage At-Risk Students & Stay Compliant

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