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Schools Fall Behind In Helping Students With Mental Health Issues


Now to U.S. college campuses and how they handle students with mental health problems. This was the subject of a Newsweek investigation published this past week. And it found that in many colleges and universities, telling someone about a mental health disorder can mean getting kicked out of school or even, in some cases, involuntarily committed to a psychiatric ward.

Katie J.M. Baker reported the story for Newsweek. And she said that more college students than ever are struggling to get through school while battling some form of mental illness.

KATIE J.M. BAKER: Most people who do have those mental health conditions experience their first episode around college age. So you have more and more people asking for help and college and universities vary. So, in some cases, they are right to handle that in an empathic way and provide them with the accommodations they are required to have under the American with Disabilities Act. But in other cases, schools that are worried about the safety of the community or worried about liability or don't want a reputation as a suicide school, would rather get them off campus than give them the resources that they're entitled to.

MARTIN: Can you walk us through one of these cases?

BAKER: So a student at Princeton University, who we'll call Dan, one night in 2012 overdosed on his prescribed antidepressant and this he says was due to mood swings brought on by a change in medication. And the second he took the antidepressant - he took about 20 of them - he realized he made a mistake. He tried to make himself throw up. And when he couldn't he went immediately to the Princeton Health Center and they referred him to a hospital. And at the hospital, they determined that he wasn't a threat to himself or others.

And when he got out, his mother got a voice mail on her cell phone saying that Dan had been banned from attending classes, evicted from his dorm room and that he was prohibited from setting foot on campus.

MARTIN: That's hard though, right? I mean it's a lot of pressure on therapists and school counselors. On the one hand, they need to support that student. But at the same time, they do have an obligation to the larger school community.

BAKER: Schools are in a very complicated position and it's really easy to tell when a school has done something wrong. But it's harder to tell what they should do correctly. And two large-scale studies found that around 10 percent of college student respondents had thought about suicide in the past year but only 1.5 percent admitted to having made a suicide attempt. And that combined with and see that from other studies suggests that the odds that a student with suicidal ideation - which is the medical term for suicidal thoughts - who actually commit suicide are a thousand to one. So schools just can't treat every student that has a mental health issue as if they're going to become this potential liability.

MARTIN: Based on your reporting, what do you think of the larger consequences of this trend, as you've explained it? I mean what are the implications for not just the students living with the mental illness or severe depression, but their friends and the larger campus community?

BAKER: Well, it actually makes the campus a lot less safe. There's a student, Shireen at UC Santa Barbara, who was already seeing a therapist on campus and she liked her therapist. But after she was found cutting herself in the shower in the dorm, they said you have to wave confidentiality. And now, when you talk to your therapist, if you don't say that you're getting better we may have to kick you out is, you know, what she was told, she says.

And all the students included in this piece, they wanted to stay in school but they wanted help. They wanted to be on medication and go to therapy. And I think schools are often well-intentioned. But, you know, something is going wrong if you are dissuading students from seeking help for their mental health conditions.

MARTIN: Was it easier for students who had parents who were advocating on their behalf?

BAKER: Completely. One story that actually didn't make it into my piece was a student an elite liberal arts college who withdrew after a suicide attempt similar to Dan's. And her parents intervened. And once he parents threatened to sue, her college instantly changed its mind in under a week. But if a school's goal is to get a student off campus it often, to me, seems like fairness or due process was not a priority. And the students that don't have this parental support get sent to psychiatric wards.

MARTIN: Katie J.M. Baker is a reporter with Newsweek. Her most recent piece in the magazine is called "How Colleges Flunk Mental Health." Thanks so much for talking with us, Katie.

BAKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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