Updated Feb. 18, 2014 at 1:50 p.m.
Weeks after Kelly tried to commit suicide three years ago, she told a University Counseling Center psychologist that she wanted to end sessions there to focus just on outside therapy.
Then the counselor told her that the decision could lead to her expulsion, she said.
“They were saying ‘We’re going to call the dean and the dean is going to kick you out.’ That’s a scary thing to hear as a sophomore,” Kelly said, speaking on the condition that she only be identified by her first name.
Already spending thousands of dollars for appointments with outside specialists, Kelly said she didn’t want to continue paying for UCC sessions, which she described as unhelpful and a waste of her time.
Afraid that GW would force her out, Kelly transferred to a college closer to her home in Pennsylvania, but decided to return a semester later because she missed the life she had built at GW.
Now, in her final semester, Kelly said she came forward to prevent other students from facing similar situations. She said she was also rattled by the suicide of freshman Sean Keefer last month, and is concerned about a stigma surrounding mental health at GW.
Kelly’s story is one that’s been echoed at universities across the country as campus health officials struggle to ease troubled students into treatment. Dozens of students have accused their universities of discriminating against them – booting them out of dorms or forcing them to withdraw – when they sought help for their mental health issues, as made public in a Newsweek investigation last week.
University spokesman Dave Andrews, who responded on behalf of officials in the UCC and the Office of General Counsel, said he could not speak about specifics of the case, but that GW would not expel students for a serious mental health concern like a suicide attempt.
“We cannot speculate about discussions held in past counseling sessions, but there is no policy at the University requiring that students receiving services at UCC be involuntarily withdrawn on account of suicidality,” Andrews wrote in a statement.
GW also has an imperfect record with mental health services. A former student sued GW in 2006 claiming that he was suspended as a sophomore after he sought treatment for depression and suicidal thoughts.
University administrators across the U.S. have come under fire for failing to properly address issues of mental health, instead being occupied by the potential liability of a suicidal student.
Julia Graff, a lawyer at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, said universities cannot treat students with mental health conditions differently than others under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which names illnesses such as depression as disabilities that requires accommodation just like physical disabilities.
Graff said the University would not have had legal grounds to expel Kelly if she was not a threat to herself or others.
“As a student, if you’re responsibly seeking treatment and do not present a significant risk of imminent harm, then they cannot be excluded,” said Graff, who has not spoken to the student. “You can’t just kick people out because they have disabilities, no matter how uncomfortable they make you.”
Kelly said she attempted suicide just weeks before coming to campus for her sophomore year. After spending time at a rehabilitation center in August 2011, she was released into the UCC’s care. Her GW counselor also told her she needed to see an outside psychologist and psychiatrist, she said.
With weekly counseling visits, Kelly quickly used up her six free sessions at the UCC and became overwhelmed by out-of-pocket costs. When she told her UCC counselor that she wanted to end their sessions, she was told she would be sent to the dean’s office and expelled.
She said she was too scared to fight the decision and decided to move closer to home while she battled the illness.
Kelly said the experience has made her feel like she was not welcome on campus – and that GW cared more about her money than her well-being. She had hoped to find support at GW, because she said her parents don’t understand her mental conditions. Kelly has still told only a handful of friends the truth about why she left GW.
“It made me feel more guilty, like it was my fault,” Kelly said. “Sometimes I feel like GW is more of a business than a school.”
A growing strain on mental health centers
The number of students entering college with mental illness is on the rise nationwide, and college mental health centers are scrambling to help diagnose and support a range of conditions.
About 30 percent of college students reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function” at a point in the past year, according to the American College Health Association’s annual survey. About 10 percent of college students have thought about suicide within the past year.
The University’s policies for treating students with serious mental health conditions also came under scrutiny in 2006, under a previous counseling center director.
A former student, Jordan Nott, filed a lawsuit claiming that GW suspended him after admitting himself to the hospital for suicidal thoughts.
Citing the school’s “psychological distress policy” and the “endangering behavior policy,” administrators immediately suspended Nott from the University, barred him from campus property — including his dorm room — and told him that he would be trespassing and could be arrested if found on campus after discharge from the hospital. Nott and the University ultimately settled the case for an undisclosed sum.
Andrews added that the UCC is dedicated to helping students “overcome difficulties and challenges that may interfere with their academic success.”
Preserving privacy, protecting against liability
UCC director Silvio Weisner, who was hired in fall 2012, has previously said that student’s mental health conditions would be kept private – not be shared with other University departments – except in certain “need-to-know” circumstances, such as a student who poses a risk to harm themselves or others.
“[Records] are maintained separate from a student’s academic record and not released without a student’s written permission – unless we’re talking about one of the exceptions to confidentiality, in which case information may be shared on a need-to-know basis,” Weisner said in an interview last fall.
The conversation about how to balance mental health treatment and student safety escalated in the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. The shooter had been treated at the campus health center for severe depression and suicidal thoughts.
Universities have also confronted the issue of liability in the wake of a 2000 lawsuit against Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The parents of a deceased student sued the university for failing to protect and care for their daughter, who committed suicide in her dorm room after years of treatment at MIT’s counseling center for severe depression and suicidal thoughts.
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said liability is a key concern for universities, though those kinds of policies do more harm than good because it uproots students from their support system.
“The liability concerns are driving the train,” LoMonte said. “Mandatory withdrawal policies have existed on the books for a long time in secrecy, but it’s time for it to be openly debated if that’s a defensible way to respond to suicide.”
The challenge is likely to accelerate, said Peter Lake, a lawyer who is the director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy. He said universities are largely unprepared to deal with the large number of students entering college with mental illnesses.
“You’re really dealing with the first large generation of people making it into higher education that also have a variety of mental health challenges.” Lake said. “The generation of people managing this is largely in new territory.”