Question of the Week

March 13, 2006


This past Friday (March 10, 2006), there was a story in the Washington Post:

"About 2 a.m. one sleepless night, sophomore Jordan Nott checked himself into George Washington University Hospital. He was depressed, he said, and thinking about suicide. Within a day and a half of arriving there, he got a letter from a GWU administrator saying his 'endangering behavior' violated the code of student conduct. He faced possible suspension and expulsion from school, the letter said, unless he withdrew and deferred the charges while he got treatment. In the meantime, he was barred from campus. 'It was like a stab in the back,' he said. He felt they were telling him, 'We're going to wipe our hands clean of you.' His response has college administrators around the country taking notice: Nott sued the university and individuals involved. The school violated federal law protecting Americans with disabilities, the complaint argues. The law covers mental as well as physical impairments. In essence, it says the school betrayed him by sharing confidential treatment information and suspending him just when he most needed help."

Why would the University take action against a student who was trying to seek help?

"Some have decided that the safest thing to do is to get rid of these kids, if someone talks about suicide, or looks depressed.' More schools are adding involuntary-leave policies. Some ask students to sign consent forms so their confidential medical and psychological records can be shared. Schools can legally alert parents and others if there is a threat to health or safety -- and now, some say, they are far more likely to do that. And some are expanding training for professors, dormitory staff and others, giving them warning signs to watch for or designing crisis intervention plans with mandatory counseling. 'To have knowledge and fail to act is just an invitation to liability,' said Sheldon Steinbach of the American Council on Education."

"Some have decided that the safest thing to do is to get rid of these kids, if someone talks about suicide, or looks depressed."

While almost everyone has had a bad day and "looked depressed" at some point, fewer reach the point of severe depression that affects the ability to function, and brings to mind thoughts of suicide. Unfortunately, it can often be difficult for teens and young adults to distinguish between what may be a severe depression, and what may be "normal."

"True depression in teens is often difficult to diagnose because normal adolescent behavior is marked by both up and down moods, with alternating periods of feeling 'the world is a great place' and 'life sucks.' These moods may alternate over a period of hours or days. Persistent depressed mood, faltering school performance, failing relations with family and friends, substance abuse, and other negative behaviors may indicate a serious depressive episode. These symptoms may be easy to recognize, but depression in adolescents often manifests very differently than these classic symptoms. Excessive sleeping, change in eating habits, even criminal behavior (like shoplifting) may be signs of depression. Another common symptom of adolescent depression is an obsession with death, which may take the form either of suicidal thoughts or of fears about death and dying. Long-term depressive illness usually has its onset in the teen or young adult years -- about 15-20% of American teens have experienced a serious episode of depression, which is similar to the proportion of adults suffering from depression."

"[A]bout 15-20% of American teens have experienced a serious episode of depression, which is similar to the proportion of adults suffering from depression."

Colleges certainly can't ask 15 - 20% of the students to leave, and students shouldn't be afraid of what might happen if they try to get help.

"If you have been thinking about suicide, get help right away, rather than simply hoping your mood might improve. When a person has been feeling down for so long, it's hard for him to understand that suicide isn't the answer - it's a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Talk to anyone you know as soon as you can - a friend, a coach, a relative, a school counselor, a religious leader, a teacher, or any trusted adult. Call your local emergency number or check in the front pages of your phone book for the number of a local suicide crisis line. These toll-free lines are staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by trained professionals who can help you without ever knowing your name or seeing your face. All calls are confidential - nothing is written down and no one you know will ever find out that you've called. There is also a National Suicide Helpline - 1-800-SUICIDE."

If you have been feeling depressed and/ or suicidal, the best thing to do is "get help right away."

"If you have a friend or classmate who you think is considering suicide, get help right away rather than waiting to see if he will feel better. Even if your friend or classmate swears you to secrecy, you must get help as soon as possible - your friend's life could depend on it. A person who is seriously thinking about suicide is depressed - and isn't able to see that suicide is never the answer to his problems."

If you are concerned that a friend or a relative is depressed and/ or suicidal: "get help right away." The following quote was designed for parents who are concerned about their teens, but teens concerned about their friends can benefit from the ideas mentioned, as well.

"Asking your teen [or your friend] whether he is depressed or is thinking about suicide lets him know that someone cares. You're not putting thoughts of suicide into his head. Instead you're giving your teen [or your friend] the chance to talk about his problems. Remember that depression and suicidal feelings are treatable mental disorders. The first step is to listen to your adolescent [or your friend]. A professional must then diagnose your teen's [or your friend's] illness and determine a proper treatment plan. Your teen [or your friend] needs to share her feelings, and many suicidal teens are pleading for help in their own way. Your teen [or your friend] needs to feel that there is hope--that people will listen, that things will get better, and that she can overcome her problems."

Colleges and universities have students living in close proximity for months at a time. One side of the issue: Students who are living with depression need to know that help will be available. Another side of the issue: These schools are concerned what actions those who are depressed might take, and what effect
those actions would have on the other students. Another side: Students who are concerned what consequences might result from their attempts to get help, may be less likely to get help, and more likely to take actions that would negatively affect their fellow students...

Questions of the Week:
What other sides are there to these issues? How can a student who is depressed and/ or having thoughts of suicide get help? How can peers and/ or friends help those who are depressed and/ or thinking of suicide? How can schools best meet the needs of their students who are living with severe depression? How can schools best meet the needs of the peers and classmates of those living with severe depression? How would these answers change if the questions involved students living with mild or moderate depression?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

[email protected]
Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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