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Crisis on campus

As mental illness among collegians rises, students' privacy rights and treatment clash with families' need to know.

September 03, 2007|Shari Roan | Times Staff Writer

Freshman year was turning out much differently than Christine, 18 at the time, had anticipated.

Away from her family and overwhelmed by courses that were far harder than she'd expected, the University of California student had begun sleeping in, missing classes and skipping meals. Then she received news from home: Her parents' business had gone bankrupt.

She told no one of the sadness engulfing her. But soon her dorm roommate noticed bloody cuts on Christine's arms. The two young women weren't particularly close, and the roommate said nothing to Christine. But she alerted their resident advisor, who confronted Christine about the cuts and her depression. In keeping with federal privacy laws -- and Christine's wishes -- her family was never notified.

"My resident advisor said I had to get help. I said OK, but I didn't want anyone in my family to find out," says Christine. "If I had ever thought my parents would know, I'm positive I wouldn't have gone to counseling."

Now, with the overall number of mentally ill college students rising, college administrators, mental-health professionals and students across the country are weighing that right to privacy against the need to assist those students who are deeply distressed or mentally ill.

Several recent high-profile cases have pitted parents against colleges that refused to divulge details of students' mental-health status. A federal lawmaker has introduced legislation that could pave the way for colleges and universities to more easily share information with family members. And the April 16 massacre at Virginia Tech has provided a real-life worst-case scenario for what can happen when students don't get appropriate help and information is not shared among college officials and the student's family.

In the months since student Seung-hui Cho killed 32 students and faculty and injured 17 others before fatally shooting himself, investigators have turned up many disturbing facts about the case -- facts that some mental-health experts, lawmakers and college administrators say warrant an urgent review of how mentally ill students are handled on college campuses.

Mental-health organizations and college administrators are now reviewing an investigative report ordered by the state of Virginia and released by the governor's office Thursday that describes how Cho -- who had been the subject of numerous complaints from students and faculty for his disturbing behavior -- failed to receive mental-health services that might have thwarted his rampage.

"Mental health has been ignored for so long in the educational system," says Frank Smith, assistant director of the Mental Health Assn. in California. "As tragic as it was, Virginia Tech opened the door for us to look at the system and see where change is needed."

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One student's decision

Leaves were beginning to turn golden and a few pumpkins livened the dormitories when Christine's roommate walked her across campus to the mental-health counseling center. It was the afternoon of Halloween, three days after she learned of the bankruptcy. She didn't want to go but feared she would be kicked out of the dorm if she didn't submit to counseling.

During several therapy sessions that followed that fall, a school psychologist tried to persuade Christine to tell her family she was being treated for serious depression. She refused. Now 24 and a grad student, she asked not to be identified by her full name because her family still doesn't know about her mental-health disorder.

"Counseling was never talked about in my family," she says. "They came from a background where you solve things within your family. My family also had very high expectations about my grades. I had this fear that I would never be their perfect daughter."

Over winter break, at home with a family that was reeling from financial problems, Christine's mood disorder worsened. Her first-quarter grades arrived. She'd failed a course.

"I came back from winter break a whole lot more depressed than when I left," she says.

A few weeks into the term, she began thinking about killing herself. She began stockpiling pills -- over-the-counter sleep aids, Advil, some Vicodin left over from when she had her wisdom teeth removed. Her roommate spotted the pills and alerted the resident advisor near midnight one evening in January. The pair sat up with Christine all night and escorted her to the counseling center in the morning.

She was referred to a school psychiatrist who agreed not to hospitalize her or call her parents if she would see the doctor twice a week for counseling and submit to close supervision in her dorm.

"I told the psychiatrist that my parents couldn't find out because I was worried about their health," she says. Under a federal law called the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, college officials must protect a student's request for privacy and are not compelled to report such things as academic or even health problems.

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