The University of Pennsylvania has created a task force on “student psychological health and welfare” in response to two student suicides in the last two months.
Addressing these tragic and often public deaths puts pressure on schools on several fronts: to grieve an individual loss, to ramp up prevention services and to minimize potential bad publicity.
A delicate balance
Following a student suicide, many universities clamp down on communication, to mitigate fallout for the institution, as well as its students.
“The default for many universities is we’re going to do less. We’re going shut down, we’re going to circle the wagons and do whatever we can to protect our university as an entity,” said Temple University social work professor Jonathan Singer who researches suicide and suicide prevention.
In talking about student suicides, universities have to take another issue into account — potential suicide clusters. “College campuses are the kinds of setting where one has to worry about issues of suicide contagion,” said Victor Schwartz, a psychiatrist and medical director of the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit suicide prevention group.
According to the CDC, incidents of “copycat” suicides correlate to increases in the number of media stories about individual suicides, when the details are reported and suicides are given dramatic or sensational headlines.
Good Policies to prevent suicides
Suicide is the second leading cause of student deaths after accidents, and institutions of higher learning are seeking ways to do a better job of preventing them. Schwartz says best practice combines counseling services with supportive administrative policies. In the mid-2000s, his organization, the Jed Foundation, used the leading model of suicide prevention (from the U.S. Air Force) to create models for university policies.
“Having policies like medical amnesty policies, working with schools to ensure that there are policies that will limit disciplinary proceedings against a student who calls for help, policy issues like making sure a school has clear, well-publicized medical leave of absences policies.”
He adds that sometimes proactive measures taken by universities can lead to legal troubles. If schools try to mandate that a student gets help, or asks the student to leave due to serious mental health issues, they could face potential lawsuits.
“In many cases, universities are under-reacting probably as often as they are overreacting because they are very concerned with the Americans with Disabilities Act,” said Schwartz.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, some students have sued their alma maters for unfairly terminating their studies due to mental illness. Last week, Newsweek ran a cover story about a Princeton student suing the school for kicking him out after he sought treatment for an accidental overdose in 2012.
The Higher Education Mental Health Alliance is in the process of creating guidelines for universities to prevent and respond to student suicides.
Members of the newly formed mental health task force at the University of Pennsylvania were not available for comment for this story.