October 4, 2002

Universities Respond to Suicide Rates

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A lawsuit filed against MIT for medical malpractice and negligence following Elizabeth Shin’s self-immolation and death in her Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) dorm room has raised issues of university culpability in student suicides on college campuses nationwide.

In response to the lawsuit filed last spring by Shin’s parents, lawyers representing MIT denied that university administrators, therapists and police did not notify the Shins of their daughter’s condition. Additionally, MIT claimed that they did provide Shin with appropriate mental health treatment before her April 2000 death.

“It is a sad fact that in today’s litigious society, the very individuals who do the most to help our students can find themselves the targets of such claims.” said Charles M. Vest, president of MIT in a letter addressed to MIT students and administrators last February. “The death of Elizabeth Shin was a tragedy … but it was not the fault of MIT or anyone who works at MIT.”

The primary issue raised by the Shin case is how a university notifies next of kin when there is a life or death situation, said Phil Meilman, director of counseling and psychological services (CAPS) at Gannett: Cornell University Health Services.

Though the Shins understood their daughter had trouble in school and had visited her the weekend before she died, they claimed they did not know the extent of their daughter’s illness, according to a The New York Times story.

Vest said that the quandary of balancing a students’ legal and medical privacy with the interest of parents at MIT is, “worked through on a case-by-case basis by professional judgment of how best to help each student.”

In Shin’s case, it was understood that she had suffered emotional instability as early as high school and that her family and friends had tried to help her, according to Vest’s letter.

“Such judgments are especially complicated when students insist that information be withheld from their parents as a condition for accepting help,” Vest said.

The line between patient confidentiality and parental involvement makes for a difficult judgment for all universities.

Susan H. Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services, said that the Shin case has not affected Cornell’s policies on students’ privacy.

“In most cases when we anticipate trouble, we will be in touch with the family,” Murphy said.

The judgment to involve a student’s family has always been made on a case-by-case basis by professionals, according to Murphy.

Meilman said that Gannett only breaches patients’ confidentiality when doctors feel that patients’ lives are in danger.

Gannett’s statement on confidentiality says that it does not release information without written permission from a student.

However, “in the case that there is a serious threat to the life of an individual that cannot be managed through the normal counseling process, we may enlist the help of a family member or a significant other in order to help resolve the crisis or assure safety,” Meilman said. “Preservation of life is paramount.”

Archived article by Janet Liao