In December 2016, Graham Burton, a sophomore at Hamilton College in upstate New York, died by suicide. His parents, Gina and Stewart, found out only afterward that there had been red flags indicating Graham was at risk, but the college chose not to share this information. Their story highlights the gaps in our higher education system’s handling of student mental health and suicide, the second-leading cause of death for college-aged adults (His College Knew of His Despair. His Parents Didn’t, Until It Was Too Late, The New York Times, May 12, 2018).
There were warning signs that Graham was not well — his sleeping was erratic, he wore the same clothes every day and he was frequently absent from class, something that troubled his professors. His advisor was especially concerned and warned the academic dean that Graham appeared to be in a dangerous spiral. He had been given contact information for a mental health counselor, two psychiatrists and a peer counselor.
When Gina and Stewart learned that the college had not disclosed critical information pertaining to Graham’s behavior and mental health, they asked what many people want to know: Why don’t colleges and universities automatically inform parents when concerns are raised about a student’s mental health?
The answer is in large part due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law that protects student privacy. FERPA does not allow parents to access student records without their child’s consent. Some say that colleges use the law to fulfill a dual purpose: to guard students’ confidentiality, but to also protect the college from difficulties with parents and lawsuits.
FERPA, however, does not ban schools from informing family members if a student is suicidal. And in a recent high-profile case in Massachusetts, the state’s highest court ruled that under certain circumstances – if a college knows that a student is experiencing suicidal ideation, for example – schools can be held liable if they don’t take appropriate action.
Nevertheless, parents can’t rely on college officials to tell them if their child’s behavior is worrisome. But they can take precautionary measures. Mental health attorney Carolyn Reinach Wolf has outlined steps to help parents navigate the college transition with respect to mental health to better ensure their child’s safety.
Parents can enroll in a Mental Health First Aid course to recognize and respond to signs of mental health challenges. Mental Health First Aid training is also a valuable tool to give students prior to attending college; it helps to destigmatize mental illness and provide the resources to better manage their own mental health and help others in crisis. Take a course near you today.