Sunday, October 15, 2006

Score one for the good guys

A lawsuit against Hunter College in New York City was recently settled for $65,000. Like most physicians, I tend to wince at the word "lawsuit" but Hunter College had really blown it this time.
In 2004, a student at the college attempted suicide in her dorm room. She subsequently called 911 and was hospitalized. When she was discharged from the hospital, she returned to school only to discover that she had been locked out of her dorm. Then next day she was evicted. In short, Hunter College had a policy that students who attempt to harm themselves will be asked to take a leave of absence for at least one semester.
A similar rule at George Washington University led to the eviction of one of their students in 2004. This student merely checked himself into the hospital for depression. As the Washington post said in an editorial "Since when does being sick constitute a disciplinary problem?”
Rules such as this constitute a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to legal experts. Just as it would not do to exclude a student in a wheelchair from living in a dormitory for fear he would accidentally fall and hurt himself, resulting in liability to the school, so too is it inappropriate for a college to evict a depressed student who seeks treatment. It is also inhumane and unethical as it discourages an already depressed student from seeking help and can cause further harm to a young person who is already suffering enough. The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights has also received complaints against Bluffton University in Ohio and DeSales University in Pennsylvania related to similar policies.
This trend among U.S. colleges toward "zero tolerance" of depressed students appears to be a response to law-suits against colleges such as MIT by families of students who died of suicide. Colleges have become fearful of the boundaries of their "in loco parentis" responsibilities towards students who may prove a risk to themselves. Although I sympathize with the colleges' confusion about where their responsibility begins and ends, penalizing their depressed students is not the answer.
For further references on this topic and with with acknowledgement to my sources:
"Lawsuit Prompts College to End PoPolicyn Suicide Attempts." Psychiatric News, Vol. 41, No. 19, Oct. 6, 2006, pp. 27 & 38
"GWU Suit Prompts Questions of Liability." Washington Post, Friday, March 10, 2006; Page A01.
"Nott v. George Washingon University." in

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