It was a typical Saturday night at the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity on the campus of George Washington University. After catching a movie, freshman Ethan Helfand and a few of his friends headed back to the frat house to drink some beers. But around 1 a.m. on Feb. 20, 2005, one of the guys made a cutting comment to Helfand, a young man whose history of depression and suicidal thoughts stretched back to middle school. Crushed by the comment—words so hurtful that even today his friends will not repeat them—Helfand headed to his dorm and began gulping handfuls of antidepressants. After dashing off farewell e-mails to family and friends, he lapsed into unconsciousness. “I wanted to sleep and not wake up,” he says.
At 5 p.m. the next day, Helfand finally did wake up—at the university hospital. Under observation there for several days, he received a stream of visitors, among them a hospital employee who questioned Helfand as to how he would respond if he felt suicidal again. Eventually, a school therapist showed up to deliver stunning news: Effective immediately Helfand was forbidden from entering his dorm. In a state of shock, he recalls asking, “Where should I go?” only to be told bluntly, “Go to a hotel.”
Is that any way to treat a student with serious psychological problems? Increasingly, colleges around the country—faced with the threat of liability suits from parents when students kill themselves on campus—are taking a get-tough approach with students they believe are a risk to themselves and the morale and mental health of those around them. Helfand, now 21, decided to take a leave of absence from the Washington, D.C., university and returned to campus last January, despite his parents’ opposition. But he has learned a big lesson from his experience, he says. Even though he takes antidepressants and sees a private psychiatrist, he insists that, no matter how dark his mood, he will never set foot again in the university health center. “I absolutely try to stay away from there,” he says. “Something might happen again, and the university will say I have to leave.” Says his dad, attorney Richard Helfand: “That’s not comforting for a parent when you’re sending your kids off to school.”
With suicide ranking as the No. 2 cause of death of college students, claiming 1,100 lives each year, college mental-health officials are justifiably concerned about how to address the problem, especially after the 2000 suicide of Massachusetts Institute of Technology sophomore Elizabeth Shin, 19, whose parents sued the university for wrongful death after Shin set herself on fire in her dorm room. (Details of the school’s out-of-court settlement with the family were never made public.)
While declining to discuss details of Helfand’s case for reasons of privacy, George Washington spokeswoman Tracy Schario does not deny that the school takes decisive action when it comes to campus suicide. “The intention is to save a life,” she says, noting that three students killed themselves over a six-month period in 2004. “Suicidal behavior not only impacts the student but the environment around him. And I think it would be disingenuous to say litigation doesn’t play into these decisions.”
As the number of students with mental-health issues who enter college rises every year, just who bears responsibility for their safety has become a heated question. While parents pay tuition and may expect schools to look out for their child, that same student is, in most cases, legally an adult and protected by privacy laws that forbid colleges from sharing confidential information about the student’s mental health, even with their parents. “Universities are caught between a rock and a hard place,” says Karen-Ann Broe of United Educators, an insurance company for educational institutions.
But a policy that protects a college can seem brutal to a student in distress. In October, George Washington settled a disability discrimination suit brought by Jordan Nott, now 21, who was suspended in 2004 after checking himself into the university hospital with suicidal thoughts after witnessing a friend leap to his death from a dorm. “It felt like I was stabbed in the back,” says Nott, who transferred to another college.
George Washington is by no means alone in adopting a get-tough approach. In August a former undergrad at Hunter College won a $65,000 settlement against the New York City school after she was locked out of her dorm room when she swallowed handfuls of Tylenol and called 911. Some colleges now ask students about their mental-health history during registration, and several hundred mentally distressed students are suspended each year, according to Gary Pavela, former director of judicial services at the University of Maryland. “Sometimes students need to be out of school,” says Eric Fulcomer, a dean at Ohio’s Bluffton University, where a student was forced to leave after a suicide attempt.
At the same time, such institutions as the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., now let students who have threatened or attempted suicide stay on campus as long as they participate in four counseling sessions. “We try to help them be successful, rather than find ways to remove them,” says Donn Marshall, the school’s head of counseling, who credits the University of Illinois with pioneering the strategy.
Grad student Sharna Horn says she owes her life to caring counselors at Colorado State University. A transfer student with few friends, she fell into a depression on Christmas Eve 2004. After six vodka-and-cranberries, she began downing prescription meds. The next morning at 5, her dog woke her. “I was so pissed the pills didn’t work,” says Horn, 23.
To appease her parents, the California snowboarder visited the campus counseling center the day of her release from a psychiatric hospital. “I went in kicking and screaming,” she says. Counselors gave her a 24-hour emergency number to call and arranged private and group therapy sessions. Little by little, Horn trusted the support and handed over excess pills to counselors. “Everyone was so kind and understanding,” she says. Horn has graduated and begun her master’s in psychology at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. “They saved my life.”
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