Friday, February 24, 2012

Mental Health Issues on College Campuses

An excellent program, held earlier this week at Fordham University School of Law (also sponsored by the New York State Bar Association), focused on legal and practical issues raised by college students with mental illness. 

These students include those who first show symptoms of emotional difficulties while dealing with the academic or social pressures of college, as well as a growing number of students with long-standing mental illness -- mild or more serious -- who are now enrolling in colleges across the country. The consensus among the program speakers was that the number of these students is growing because of such factors as more effective medication that can mitigate the impact of mental illness and the impact of the Americans with Disabilities Act and related statutes, which have required colleges to make reasonable accommodations for students with all kinds of disabilities.

There was a good deal of discussion during the program of the problems caused when college administrators and mental health counselors fail to take action or share information about students in crisis because they believe that doing so will violate federal law, specifically FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. All of the speakers - who included attorneys, mental health professionals, and college administrators (and a number of individuals who serve in more than one of these roles) -- were clear that they would rather deal with a lawsuit claiming that they breached a student's confidentiality under FERPA than face one in the aftermath of a tragedy. "There is no FERPA police force," one attorney stated. In addition, as we have noted before in this blog, there are numerous exceptions to FERPA, including when disclosure of information is necessary to protect the health of the student or other individuals.

Parents and students need to keep in mind that despite news reports when violence or suicide occurs at a college, a college campus is actually a very safe place. As Victor Schwartz, M.D., a psychiatrist who is Dean of Students at Yeshiva University in New York noted, the level of violence on campuses is lower than that in the communities in which they are located, and the rate of suicide among college students is one half that of students in the same age group who are not enrolled in college.
Attorneys Deborah Scalise, Melinda Saran (Vice Dean at SUNY
 Buffalo Law School), and Carolyn Wolf discuss ethical issues
Most mental health issues that face college students do not reach the serious levels of possible violence or suicide. For high school students who have a history of depression, anxiety, or mood regulation issues it is important to investigate the resources available at any college you are considering. What mental health services do they have on campus? How and when are students referred to community mental health providers? Will you be able to have prescriptions for medication filled near campus? And all students and parents should be aware that college can be a stressful time for young people and should learn about the kinds services a prospective school offers to support the mental health of its students.

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