Are Colleges Failing Their Mentally Ill Students?

Katie J.M. Baker investigates:

“Schools should encourage students to seek treatment. But a lot of policies I see involve excessive use of discipline and involuntary leaves of absence, and they discourage students from asking for the help they need,” says Karen Bower, a private attorney who specializes in disability discrimination cases in higher education. “Ultimately, that makes the campus less safe.”

Two large-scale studies found that around 10 percent of college student respondents had thought about suicide in the past year, but only 1.5 percent admitted to having made a suicide attempt. Combined with data from other studies, that suggests that the odds that a student with suicidal ideation – the medical term for suicidal thoughts – will actually commit suicide are 1,000 to 1. “Thus, policies that impose restrictions on students who manifest suicidal ideation will sweep in 999 students who would not commit suicide for every student who will end his or her life,” Paul S. Appelbaum writes in Law & Psychiatry: “Depressed? Get Out!”

“Colleges don’t want people who are suicidal around, so what’s supposed to happen to them?” says Ira Burnim, legal director of the D.C. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. “We’re going to lock them in a bomb shelter?” Kicking students off campus for mental health issues typically does more harm than good by isolating them from their support systems when what they really need is stability and empathy, he says. Moreover, it’s often a completely unnecessary overreaction.