Keep the secret or save a life? The choice should be clear: prioritize student mental health, but we need mechanisms that permit that.
Michael Pridemore and Kim Pridemore, the parents of a college student who committed suicide in 2014, wrote an opinion piece in The News-Gazette. Their piece addresses the need for colleges to be able to share mental health information with parents so that parents are aware and can get their child help. In the Pridemore’s case, they never knew until after their son committed suicide.
It is a painful opinion piece to read, but an important one, so I do encourage all parents and college students to read it. Whether or nor your state has a law that allows colleges or universities to share mental health information with parents under certain circumstances, there is a way to do this, but it starts with a conversation – and trust – between parents and child.
If your state does not have a law that permits notification to parents if a college student indicates intent to harm themselves, then talk about whether the counseling service release form can include a clause that says something like, “In the event that I should communicate intent to harm myself, I authorize the university to let my parents know.” And because not all students in need of help will contact the counseling service, also consider whether that type of release language should also be part of any forms the student signs when they first enroll in the school.
Because I’m not a lawyer, I don’t know what the exact language should be. But I do know, as a mandated reporter in my state, that there are times when the law doesn’t require disclosure, but if the law or release forms permit it, then we may be able to let parents know that their children are in more trouble than they might realize. And where a student has no relationship with, or a horrid relationship with, their parents or guardians, the form should allow them to designate a trusted friend or person who would be notified.
Yes, I realize some will throw out objections or concerns about misuse of any such permissions or releases. As someone who is also required to maintain confidentiality and who is committed to that, this is one of those situations where the word “balancing” may actually be appropriate. Do you really want to be the person who kept the secret and then found out that the student/patient committed suicide?
Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in those aged 15-24. And yes, we need more mental health resources in this country. But those resources may also include a youth’s family, and we need a way to alert them so they can help, too.
Disclosure: For those not familiar with my “real” work, I’m a licensed mental health professional who also does consulting work in schools for students with behaviors the districts have struggled to address.