Colleges and suicide threats: when to call home?

The university, which admits no fault, maintains the language reflects policies already in place there under a 2008 state law, and wouldn’t have made a difference for Daniel Kim anyway.

It continues to insist that, after sending local police to check on the student, and despite the detailed eMail, it had no reason to believe he was actively suicidal and thus didn’t need to notify his family.

But the family’s attorney, Gary Mims, insists the settlement goes further than the state law, which applies only to students treated by university mental health services. Now, he says, Virginia Tech must at least consider notifying parents if it receives an indication from any source a student may be suicidal.

Several experts described it as among the strongest such policies in the country.

The issue of when colleges should notify parents their adult children may be suicidal remains fraught with legal, medical and ethical dilemmas. College policies, state laws and professional codes of conduct vary widely — and occasionally conflict.

Some mental health professionals call the Virginia Tech settlement the latest step in a trend they welcome: Threats to safety increasingly take precedence over preserving confidentiality. They emphasize that in many cases, involving parents is not only right, but helpful.

“There’s some good evidence if someone is really sick, that involving family in their treatment planning, the medication, helping them stay on track, are really good things to do,” said Greg Eells, director of counseling and psychological services at Cornell University in New York, which has changed several policies to make notifying parents more common. “I think the (Virginia Tech settlement) is kind of affirming that.”

But many remain wary of top-down pressure on counselors to notify parents as the default option, even if such policies are well-intentioned and allow exceptions. Many students have just passing thoughts of suicide. Also, relationships with parents may be part of the problem.

"(Required)" indicates required fields