Even though cases of depression are becoming more prevalent and talked about, misinformation and damaging social stigmas surrounding depression and other mental illnesses still linger. Former George Washington University student Jordan Nott experienced the effects of these stigmas firsthand – from his university. After checking himself into the hospital for depression and suicidal thoughts in 2004, he received a letter from an administrator informing him that unless he withdrew from school during his treatment, the university would suspend or expel him. Additionally, during treatment, he would not be allowed to return to campus due to his “endangering behavior.” GWU’s harsh actions against Nott are counterproductive to helping students with depression and indicate an unsettling trend of universities caving to a fear of lawsuits rather than putting the welfare of their students first.
Depression is as much a medical condition as cancer or diabetes, yet depressed students may hesitate to seek treatment because of negative attitudes surrounding mental illness. Nott was brave enough to recognize he needed help and responsible enough to seek treatment for himself, making GWU’s punishment all the more nonsensical.
This action sends the wrong message to other students suffering from mental illness. It’s hard enough to face the social stigmas involved without universities contributing to the overreaction. With this brash disciplinary ruling, GWU sent the message that it is better to keep quiet and hide the illness rather than get help.
GWU’s move is just another item on the growing list of cases where universities act out of fear that suicides on campus might result in a lawsuit. In the case of a student at Ferrum College in Virginia who made open threats before committing suicide, a judge ruled that a school has an obligation to at least try to prevent suicide in times of obvious risk. Nervous over their accountability, some schools have instituted involuntary-leave policies for students at risk for suicide and some even ask students to sign consent forms waving the confidentiality of their medical records.
While it is understandable that schools wish to avoid lawsuits, their priorities should lie with promoting fair treatment of students instead. Barring Nott from campus and making him withdraw from school or else risk expulsion did not help him get better, nor did it create a comfortable environment for those who might otherwise have sought help for their mental illness. Students should not be treated merely as potential liabilities, and the fear of a lawsuit should never trump a university’s concern for students’ well-being.
Universities should not be viewed as students’ guardians, but they can provide students with access to the help they need. Expanding mental health services for students is a way for schools to not only avoid legal liability but also ensure a climate of safety and understanding for those with depression and other related diseases.