The family of a freshman who died by suicide in January 2014 is suing the University for negligence after he visited Mental Health Services twice in the days before his death.
Freshman Sean Keefer died by suicide on the Mount Vernon Campus in January 2014, and was the first of three students to die by suicide that semester, sparking an increased focus on campus mental health. His father, Christopher Keefer, filed the lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court on Monday alleging his son’s wrongful death and asking for $15 million in compensatory damages.
The lawsuit says Keefer’s suicide was the “direct and proximate result of the negligent, careless and/or reckless failures” of former Director of Mental Health Services Silvio Weisner and of the two clinicians with whom Keefer met, according to the lawsuit.
Weisner was unlicensed to practice as a psychologist in D.C. in the weeks leading up to Keefer’s death, according to the lawsuit. Weisner was forced to resign in September after officials learned of his unlicensed status. Weisner did not return requests to comment for this story.
GW failed to conduct a suicide assessment or form a treatment plan, did not contact Keefer’s parents about his mental state and “failed to heed his pleas for help,” according to the lawsuit. Throughout all of Keefer’s interactions with the counseling center, staff failed to recognize that he was “suffering from diminished capacity and other significant medical and mental health conditions caused by his depression,” according to the lawsuit.
Christopher Keefer said in an interview on Monday that university counseling centers need “an adequate number of licensed and trained clinicians,” and must notify parents as soon as they meet with a student who “is in need of immediate intervention.”
He said a student told him about a Hatchet report that Weisner was unlicensed during his visit to D.C. earlier this fall. He said he was “shocked and surprised.”
“All too often universities hide behind these adults who are employed there when it comes to making decisions about a student’s wellbeing,” he said. “Nobody needs to be losing people to suicide – certainly not young people, certainly not the brightest minds there are.”
Sean Keefer’s friends and family described him as a gifted student with a passion for coding. Originally from West Linn, Ore., he came to GW on a prestigious engineering scholarship, which only a few students receive each year.
University spokeswoman Candace Smith declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing a University policy to not comment on pending litigation.
“Sean was a beloved member of the GW community. The loss of a loved one is tragic, and the University sympathizes with the family and has offered its condolences,” Smith said in an email.
Two meetings with GW clinicians
Keefer visited Mental Health Services, which was known as the University Counseling Center at the time, twice between Jan. 13 and Jan. 15, 2014, according to the lawsuit. In the first meeting on Jan. 13, he told a clinician he had researched different ways to kill himself, according to the lawsuit.
He also “expressed feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, which had gotten worse since the middle of last semester when he felt isolated, lost motivation and ‘was tired of trying,’” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges that the information Keefer provided should have alerted counseling center staff that “Sean had severe medical and mental health issues and posed a significant risk of imminent and substantial harm to himself.”
In that first meeting, he met with Jungeun Kim, who was a counselor at the time, according to the lawsuit. Kim now works as a clinical counselor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Kim’s notes said that Keefer’s “affect was flat” and he “appeared depressed,” according to the lawsuit. Kim also noted that his “speech was slow and slurred, and it was hard to hear his voice at times.” She discharged him and said he needed to be assigned a therapist as soon as possible, according to the lawsuit.
Keefer voluntarily attended counseling again on Jan. 15, and was seen by clinician Maria Berbery, according to the lawsuit. Berbery noted that Keefer’s girlfriend had broken up with him the day before, which she said was “a significant added stressor on his medical and mental health condition,” according to the lawsuit.
Kim and Berbery did not return requests to comment for this story. Berbery no longer works as a staff clinician at GW, according to her voicemail message and an auto-reply from her GW email address.
Keefer was found dead in his West Hall room on Jan. 21, 2014. Several days after his death, his family came to campus to speak at a memorial service. University President Steven Knapp and Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski also attended.
The lawsuit states that the claims fall under D.C.’s survival act and wrongful death statute, laws that allow his family to sue for damages on his behalf.
Patrick Regan, the lawyer representing the Keefer family in the lawsuit, said Keefer had gone to the counseling center “begging” for treatment. He said it is “inexcusable” that officials did not know Weisner was unlicensed at the time Keefer was seeking help.
“None of us want to be seen by someone who is not licensed. It’s indicative of the overall way the center was being managed at the time,” Regan said on Monday.
GW’s history with mental health
In October 2005, a former student also sued GW, alleging he was suspended and barred from class as a result of his treatment for depression. The student’s lawsuit said GW’s policies were discriminatory against those with mental illnesses and punished those who sought help. He also said in the lawsuit that the information he had told staff in the counseling center and at GW Hospital was released to administrators without his permission, part of a policy that officials said at the time was to protect students.
The University settled that complaint out of court with a confidential settlement in November 2006.
In 2011, another student alleged that a psychologist at GW’s counseling center threatened her with expulsion after she attempted suicide and wanted to end counseling sessions at GW. Afraid she would be forced out, the student transferred to a school closer to home but ended up returning to GW after a semester.
Following Keefer’s death, as well as the suicides of two other students on the Mount Vernon campus in the spring of 2014, University officials and students vowed to heighten their focus on mental health. The two other students had also visited the counseling center before their deaths, according to the lawsuit.
GW added permanent counseling to the 700-person campus in fall 2014.
The following fall, students started a month-long mental health awareness campaign. Students also pushed for a peer-support hotline, which Knapp backed last January. Mental health has also became a platform in Student Association candidacies.
Officials moved the counseling center from K Street to the Marvin Center last January to bring services closer to students. GW hired eight specialized clinicians last academic year who specialized in areas like addiction, LGBT issues and law school students.
Last February, the Board of Trustees approved a 3.4 percent tuition increase that would partially go toward funding mental health resources on campus.
During the February 2015 Board of Trustees meeting, Konwerski said additional resources could help shorten wait times and support niche populations. Konwerski said the office had seen individual appointments, psychiatry appointments and after-hours crisis incidents rise over the previous year.
Weisner’s role at GW
Since coming to GW in 2012, Weisner instituted a triage system for the counseling center, which included initial assessments and crisis intervention services over the phone. He also added group counseling sessions on topics like LGBT issues and eating disorders.
Weisner previously worked at Marymount University in Virginia before coming to GW. He is a licensed psychologist in Virginia, according to the Virginia Department of Health Professionals website, and specializes in deafness and disability, stress management, gender identity concerns and the intersection of mental health and religion.
His license in D.C. expired at the end of December 2013, according to documents from the D.C. Department of Health. A former associate director is currently serving as director of the center on an interim basis while officials search for a permanent leader.
Weisner is the second leader of the counseling center to step down suddenly in recent years.
Former director John Dages, who led the center before Weisner, stepped down in 2011 after employees questioned his leadership and ability. Two months after Dages resigned, Barbara Brown, an associate director at the center, also left.
There are now seven staff clinicians as well as several assistant directors and affiliated therapists at the center, according to its website, and officials have said they are hiring more staff. Konwerski said earlier this fall that the number of full-time clinicians has increased over the last several years.