Experts say GW is in complicated legal territory as it faces a lawsuit alleging negligence and wrongful death after a freshman died by suicide two years ago, days after he attended counseling sessions at the University.
Although suicide-related lawsuits are not unheard of in higher education, experts say the outcomes of those complaints can vary widely. The lawsuit, which the student’s family filed last Monday, alleges that GW failed to conduct a suicide assessment, contact the student’s family or form a treatment plan.
The lawsuit comes after GW has spent the better part of the last two years transforming its mental health services on campus. It also fits into a broader discussion in higher education about how schools handle the privacy of their students while responding sensitively to complicated mental health concerns.
In 2014 three students died by suicide on GW’s campus. Following those deaths, the University pushed for a broader campus conversation on student mental health and added resources to the counseling center by hiring specialized clinicians and setting up a timeline for a peer-support hotline.
A similar lawsuit was filed at the California Institute of Technology after a student died by suicide in 2009. The family of a student settled medical malpractice claims but dropped claims against the university.
Experts said it is likely that universities settle the cases out of court because the legal process can be slow and draining for a family. GW has settled at least one mental health-related lawsuit with a confidential settlement.
Marney White, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine, said generally when counselors are assessing a patient for suicidal tendencies, they will take into account the severity of the symptoms and how likely the patient is to attempt suicide.
She said a counselor will typically follow American Psychological Association guidelines, which call for the counselor and patient to make a contract, stating that the patient will seek help if he or she is about to commit self-harm in any way.
She added that this training is “pretty standard” for all counselors.
“In my experience, it is every psychologist’s greatest fear that one of their patients might harm themselves,” White said. “It is a universal concern, and one that we all strive to prevent in everything that we do.”
Patients who have “suicidal thoughts, plans or behaviors should generally be treated in a setting that is least restrictive and most likely to be safe and effective,” according to the American Psychological Association’s guide to assessing and treating people with suicidal behaviors.
The guide states that levels of care can vary depending on the patient, but include involuntary inpatient hospitalization, partial hospital and intensive outpatient programs. It goes on to say that treatment depends on the amount of self-care patients can devote to themselves and considered against negative effects like social stigma.
The student at the center of the lawsuit was not hospitalized and had not been given an official course of treatment at GW’s Mental Health Services, after seeking counseling at the center twice in one week in the days before his death, according to the lawsuit.
Experts said the lawsuit against GW is also unique because it argues that the University was negligent in treating the freshman because former University Counseling Center Director Silvio Weisner was unlicensed at the time the student sought treatment. Weisner resigned this fall once officials learned of his unlicensed status.
The challenges across higher education
Higher education institutions have increasingly lost young people to suicide on campuses across the country, which has brought national attention to the subject of college students’ mental health. Last year ESPN reported on one University of Pennsylvania student athlete’s suicide as part of a broader discussion of perfectionism among athletes.
Robin Wilson, a reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education who covers mental health at colleges and universities, said at many “elite institutions,” students with serious mental health issues may be asked to leave because colleges fear the liability and want the students to get better care.
“As soon as a student comes in and says, ‘I feel suicidal. I’ve attempted to kill myself,’ the university immediately calls the parents and asks the students to take a leave until they get better because they believe the students need to tend to mental health first and foremost,” Wilson said.
In 2005, a former student sued GW alleging he was suspended and barred from class as a result of his treatment for depression. He 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 case out of court.
But Wilson said the decision to ask a student to leave is a complicated one and can upset the families involved.
“They feel that the university is giving up on the child,” she said.
Scott Jaschik, an editor at Inside Higher Ed who reports on campus mental health, said lawsuits may allege malpractice, whether or not students are asked to leave.
“Suits may be filed charging that a university didn’t do enough to prevent a suicide and also on the other side – that a college or university over-reacted to the potential of a suicide and forced a student to take a leave that he or she didn’t want to take,” Jaschik said in an email.