Mental illness among college students is on the rise and with it comes a growing debate over parents’ right to know. According to this LA Times article, school officials feel bound by student confidentiality laws not to divulge information to parents while others claim that parents should be informed especially when a student becomes suicidal.
According to the American College Health Assn., about 15% of college students have been diagnosed with depression. A 2004 survey found that nearly half of college students said they felt so depressed they had difficulty functioning one or more times during the last school year.
The Jed Foundation, an organization that works to prevent college suicides, estimates that 1,100 college students a year take their own lives — an average of about three a day. Suicidal thinking is common. The American College Health Assn.’s 2005 poll showed that 11% of women and 9% of men in college considered suicide at some point.
Both school officials and health professionals have federal laws tying their hands when it comes to disclosing information about a student’s mental health. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act — better known simply as FERPA — was passed in 1974 to strictly limit the disclosure of information from students’ records, the article says. Likewise, health professionals are bound by even more inflexible patient confidentiality rules, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, which took effect in 2003.
But FERPA is not meant to keep life-saving information from parents, says Steven J. McDonald, general counsel for the Rhode Island School of Design and an expert on the law. FERPA is stringent but does permit disclosure to “appropriate parties” in an emergency that involves the health or safety of the student or others, the article says. College administrators, however, often hesitate to act on that exception because they fear getting sued.
In addition, some mental health advocates argue that confidentiality ensures more people will seek help.
“I feel that confidentiality is paramount to being able to receive treatment,” says Frank Smith of the Mental Health Assn. in California. “If there is any notion of the ability to share information, I think colleges will have a large body of people who won’t seek treatment.”
But confidentiality also means students may be left dealing with serious mental health issues on their own without the support of their family, a prospect that could be risky. Some parents have sued universities for failing to inform them of their child’s deteriorating state. MIT settled a case with the family of Elizabeth Shin who set herself on fire in her dorm room in 2000 and later died of injuries.
In another case, the parents of a male student at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania sued the school after their son hanged himself in his fraternity house in 2002. He had been receiving counseling on campus for depression and had insisted his parents not be notified, the article says. His friends testified at the trial that they had alerted school officials that “something was going to happen.” But the jury found the school was not liable, saying it had offered Mahoney support and could not have foreseen his suicide.
One family that was profiled in the LA Times article realized something was wrong with their daughter shortly after they sent her to school, but were stonewalled by school officials when they tried to help.
Toward the end of October, Will and Micky found they couldn’t reach their daughter. “We tried to call her room, the dorm master, the campus police. No one could tell us where she was,” says Micky, who asked that she and Will be identified by their first names only to protect their daughter’s privacy. She is now 24. “Finally one of the dorm heads called us and said, ‘We can’t tell you where she is.’ ”
Will and Micky drove to the school and tearfully demanded an explanation. “The mental-health counselors agreed to meet with us but they refused to divulge any information,” recalls Micky. “We tried to explain about our child. We loved her. She had never been abused. We were just met with stony silence. They told us that she was an adult and she had chosen not to tell us, so they couldn’t tell us. We went home. We felt totally stymied.”
The couple hired a private investigator who discovered their daughter had been hospitalized for cutting herself and threatening suicide. They brought their daughter home and arranged for outpatient psychiatric care. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and eventually was able to return to school.
This isn’t an easy issue to come down on. I can see the value of confidentiality especially if it allows a student to access the care they need. But it’s unimagineable to me to think of myself in Will and Micky’s position – not knowing where my kid is or what’s happening with her. What do you all think? Is the system broken?