Depression on Campus: Who Has a Right to Know?

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From an article in the LA Times entitled “Crisis on Campus,” this description of the tension between students’ privacy rights and what the author calls “families’ need to know”:

[A suicidal student]  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.

Christine began taking antidepressants and her outlook improved. Eventually, she exhausted her limited number of free therapy sessions with the college psychiatrist but arranged for off-campus counseling and antidepressant treatment.

Only her roommate, resident advisor, the campus housing administrator and her therapists knew of her ordeal.

“My parents never found out, which I think helped me preserve my relationship with them,” Christine says. “My professors never knew. You really want to limit who knows because once you get through the crisis you want to live a normal life. You want to include all the people you need in your treatment, but you don’t want the whole campus to know.”

Law students are prone to depression at rates that are triple to quadruple the national average (see here).   And clinicially depression occurs frequently in lawyers (see here).   Are we doing enough to help students and professors identify the warning signs of depression?    I teach in the week-long orientation program at my school, and mental health is mentioned only in passing.  

-Bridget Crawford

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0 Responses to Depression on Campus: Who Has a Right to Know?

  1. Bridget Crawford says:

    I can’t speak for anyone else but in my Orientation classes AND in regular courses I emphasize mental health as in recognize when you’re stressed, when you feel things are out of control AND here’s what you should do when they happen. I also approach students who seem to be in a funk. Sometimes a few chats help but not infrequently I find a reason to ask them to see a counselor or therapist.

    I think one reason law students may be more prone to depression than, say, medical students is that law students work very hard often with no sense of having helped anybody or done anything that matters. Of course the opposite is true for medical students doing their clinical years. I suspect that our students who do clinical work aren’t the ones who get depressed.

    -Ralph Michael Stein

  2. bob coley jr says:

    the fact that mental health is metioned only in passing can be construed as an indictment of anyone that admits to distress. This implied need for secracy would seem to have exaserbating effects instead of dealing with someones dificulties. It would seem a balance must be struck between inapropriate use of medical data and the need of those that should know to do so. The stigmatization involved with any health problems, mental or otherwise, must end first. Then people may be more willing to seek help before real damage ensues. Unfortunately the petty, unforgiving and intolerent nature of many makes all this unlikely. As long as health problems are seen in a negative light, people will shy away from getting the help they need and the need to limit disclosure will still exist. This “CATCH-22” effect exists not only on campus but is rampant and devastating in society as a whole. A remnant of our caveman days I guess. I would tend to agree that not being able to see results in our efforts is very depressing and special concern must be visited on places where this occurs.

  3. Eric says:

    Taking the question one step further — what about faculty mental health? If there is any “right to know” about student mental health issues, is there a corresponding “right to know” about faculty mental health issues, where, for instance, they might impact students, colleagues, etc.?

    I ask this quite seriously. In my own case (I don’t mind disclosing here), I make a point of letting students know that I have Tourette’s, because I think they are entitled to an explanation for my otherwise odd-seeming verbal and physical ticks, and because it makes me less self-conscious when teaching. However, I would imagine that a faculty member with some less benign condition (e.g. severe depression) would be very reluctant to disclose it, even though it might conceivably have a more serious impact on students.

    Anyway, on the question of what law schools are doing, or ought to be doing, in regard to student mental health, that’s an issue we’ve been trying explicitly to address in various ways at Elon Law, where I teach, though our academic support program, and through participation in the NC Bar’s “BarCARES” program.