Student Mental Health: Confidentiality and legality with student mental health strikes chords at Northwestern University

Student Mental Health - Northwestern University

Student mental health is often overlooked until unfortunate events press the issue. On Nov. 21, 2012, Northwestern University student Alyssa Weaver committed suicide while studying abroad in London at the prestigious Goldsmith College. The news of Weaver’s death spread slowly, not reaching the NU campus population until that Friday evening. Weaver, who was studying visual cultures at Goldsmith, was remembered in numerous memorials both at NU and in London. Hundreds of people gathered to light candles and tell stories, according to a report by The Daily Northwestern.

The aftermath of Weaver’s suicide has given rise to the discussion of mental health in schools at NU.

“Everyone kind of took a moment of silence, then we put our candles on the ground and let them sit there and reflect,” Brennan Suen, another study abroad student, told the news source. “It was nice even though we’ve been there two months, everyone was able to come together. … One girl was just like ‘I met her one time during the first week and never forgot her,’ and was just so shocked because she was just that kind of girl.”

Suen’s memory of Weaver feels particularly poignant, as Weaver’s attitude belied little of what was going on under the surface. According to Weaver’s mother, the 20-year-old student was in a “dark place” shortly before her death. And Terri Weaver encouraged other students dealing with mental health issues to seek assistance.

A closer look at mental health services
According to Suicide.org, a nonprofit suicide prevention, awareness and support organization, suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students. Furthermore, the leading cause of suicide among college students is untreated depression.

The Daily Northwestern wrote that shortly after the news of Weaver’s suicide, NU President Morton Schapiro promised that the university take measures to ensure mental health resources were available to students.

“Trust me, we will take a close look at what resources we have available and what resources we might need,” Schapiro told The Daily. “We’re always looking at that anyway, but we should be taking a look at it now.”

According to Medill Reports, a news blog written by graduate students at Northwestern’s University’s Medill School, shortly after the conversation began, another Northwestern student wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Northwestern, speaking boldly about her own conditions as well as her concern that the campus lacked proper mental health services for students. In an online comment on the letter, another student pointed out concerns of privacy.

How confidentiality impacts the effectiveness of mental health services
The conversation on student mental health and confidentiality continued at a panel in April 2013 to discuss the confidentiality and legality issues of mental health in the classroom. As Katie Sanford, president of Active Minds, a student mental health advocacy group and organizer of the panel, posited, if students are avoiding mental healthcare because of stigmas, it must be addressed.

Different panel members spoke extensively on confidentiality in behavioral health including NU professors such as the assistant director of services for students with disabilities and the director of the psychotic disorders program at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine,

Many questions were raised at the panel, even if few were answered outright.

Joe Monahan, a Chicago mental health attorney and adjunct professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, showed concern that health information technology and mental health information exchange could make information privacy more challenging than traditional records.

Another panel member, Morris Goldman, M.D., asked how students should best go about asking a school for time off due to mental health issues. Is there a way to maintain privacy there?

The questions all seem to hinge on the same answer: Reduce the stigma on mental health and students will find ways to adapt and become comfortable with levels of confidentiality and privacy.  Mental health in schools is a delicate issue, whether it’s college campuses or public middle schools. The first and most important step that colleges can take however is to make information about counseling services and other mental health resources available, with confidentiality and privacy regulations made clear and apparent.

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