- The New York Times profiled the 2016 suicide of a Hamilton College sophomore, whose academic advisors had known he had been struggling academically but failed to intervene, positing a question of whether colleges have a responsibility to prevent suicide or notify students' parents if there are signs of "complete crash and burn."
- Colleges are limited in the type and amount of information they can share about students with non-students, as mandated by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, and the Hamilton student's case follows a ruling from Massachusett's highest court last week that M.I.T could not be held responsible for the suicide of a graduate student in 2009. Some officials, who can share information in suicide is a stated possibility, say they hold back to avoid intrusive parenting of students who are legal adults.
- While the numbers attached to suicidal ideation and deaths are stark at highly competitive places like the University of Pennsylvania, which has seen 14 student suicides in the last 5 years, campuses and systems are working to assist students in broader ways.
With statistics showing 18 to 25 year olds have the highest prevalence of experiencing a form of mental illness, industry leaders are recognizing that students' mental health needs greater attention, particularly as more instances of suicide and tragedy on campus come into the spotlight. In Great Britain, demand for increased mental health services has officials calling for partnerships between schools and government to increase resources.
But to what extent can academic advisers and others who are not trained as mental health professionals be held responsible for the mental well-being of students? In some institutions, leadership teams are turning to mental health triaging training to help faculty and staff at all levels identify warning signs and encourage them to write a referral for follow-up. But in many cases, the stigma associated with mental health struggles and other barriers, like simply not knowing what services are available on campus keep students from seeking help.
The key element for campuses to consider with student suicide and student-related crime is how much an institution is made aware of a potential scenario, and what deliberate steps should it have taken to prevent such a scenario. But there is a fine line between prohibiting dangerous behavior and maintaining student privacy; outside of an imminent threat to self and others, schools can mandate very little for students who show even clear signs of distress, and who are able to turn down offers for therapy, counseling, and other resources.
This is the challenge in the years following Virginia Tech's mass shooting and a growing culture of violence and suicide on campus. As more students become empowered to share intimate thoughts about suicidal ideation, schools may find that stakeholders (other students, parents, legislators) may want to push the envelope on the role campus communities should play in preventing tragedy. And as courts draw closer to establishing rules of liability for schools in student health and protection, which could extend to self-care, more attention must be given to the social-emotional well-being of students on campus, not just how many courses they're taking at a time or how long it takes them to graduate.