Student suicide is one of the leading causes of death on college campuses across the nation, and statistics indicate a rise in student suicide and suicide attempts at this particular time of year. University Health Services Counseling Services Director Bob McGrath suggested in a Herald article last week ("Attempted Suicide Reinforces UW Support Services," Dec. 5) that this may be because the end of the semester can be a stressful time for students. Every college has health and counseling services aimed at helping at-risk students, but unfortunately some students fall through the cracks.
Even though the resources are available to help those who may be in a state of mental crisis, students do not always take advantage of them. The university cannot force a student to get help — the student must seek help on his or her own. The most effective way to encourage students struggling with medical or mental health issues is to be able to assure them the help they seek and the information they share will be kept private. Colleges are torn between respecting the privacy of students with mental health issues and protecting these students, and possibly others, from potential violence.
Should colleges have a responsibility to inquire about, and share, information with student's families regarding a student's mental health in order to protect students on campus? Should colleges be held responsible for the consequences of the dangerous behavior of students if such behavior might have been predicted were health information shared between the school and a student's family?
When considering specific cases, such as the massacre at Virginia Tech in April, or last week's murder-suicide by a teenager at an Omaha shopping mall, these become difficult questions to answer. We may be tempted, given the deadly consequences, to answer yes to these questions, but we should also realize the potential consequences of invading a student's privacy.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act is a federal law that limits the sharing of education records. It gives specific rights to parents regarding their children’s records. These rights transfer to the student when he or she turns 18. FERPA applies to education institutions that receive federal funding. Generally, therefore, education records cannot be shared with a student's family without a student's written consent. Under FERPA, information — including student medical information — can be shared only if the student’s life is in danger, but this is a difficult judgment call. When is it justified for the college to share with the student's family the suspicion that a student is in crisis?
If the decision is made correctly, then that information may save a life; but if it is made incorrectly, this can upset the student and break the trust that enables the health service to be effective in the first place. The health service must respect students’ right to privacy or students will not use the health service, even in emergency situations — which could then cause further harm.
No one can predict with absolute certainty the future actions of another person, and colleges cannot invade a student's privacy based on this uncertain judgment call. However, what colleges can do is provide the resources and encourage students to get help to minimize student suicide and violence. Furthermore, colleges have not been held liable for these incidents, but that does not mean student suicide should be given lower priority. Colleges still have an obligation to put forth their best efforts to prevent student suicide and violence even if the obligation is not a legal one.
Marissa Rubin ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science.