Some Students Fear Openness On Mental Health

In the wake of the shootings at Virginia Tech, colleges and universities are paying more attention to students with mental health problems. But in some cases, that has meant that students who complain of serious depression or suicidal thoughts are quickly suspended or expelled.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris. The shootings at Virginia Tech last year created new pressure on universities to keep a close eye on students with mental health problems. At the same time, according to school counseling centers, a growing number of students are asking for help - help for problems such as depression and anxiety. NPR's Larry Abramson has the story of one student who turned to his counseling service for help and quickly found himself suspended.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Jeremy Jackson(ph) doesn't like to talk about the way he got kicked out of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Mr. JEREMY JACKSON (Former Student, College of Mount St. Joseph, Cincinnati, Ohio): Yeah, I didn't get to say goodbye to anybody. I didn't even get to go in and get my stuff, say goodbye to the people on my floor, my RA, you know, nobody. I didn't get to say goodbye to the football coaches.

ABRAMSON: His parents say the story begins more than a year ago in triumph. After struggling with learning disabilities through high school, Jeremy was accepted at Mount St. Joseph, which touted its special program for kids with learning problems. Jeremy moved from his home in Indianapolis and started school. But within weeks, something awful happened.

Mr. MICHAEL HARPERING(ph): He was beat up in his dormitory by another student there.

ABRAMSON: Michael Harpering, Jeremy's stepfather, says a disagreement between friends turned into a fight.

Mr. HARPERING: And he was knocked out, knocked unconscious. He was hit several times in the head.

ABRAMSON: Now, Jeremy is an athlete, a football player. Though he was upset about the fight, he toughed it out, and the school decided not to send him to the hospital. But his mother, Bonnie Harpering, immediately noticed that Jeremy was not the same.

Ms. BONNIE HARPERING: Jeremy knows a lot about sports, and he would forget some things about sports. And I'd watch him become very aggravated when that would happen. He also seemed to be more and more agitated.

ABRAMSON: Bonnie Harpering sits in the living room of her comfortable home in Indianapolis. Outside, the yard is ankle-deep in dead leaves. She talks about the family's efforts to figure out what was wrong. They consulted a neurologist who said Jeremy apparently had suffered a serious concussion in the fight and that he'd need time to recover. His performance in school spiraled downward. He grew angry. In a phone call home, Jeremy said something that would end his career at Mount St. Joseph.

Ms. HARPERING: And he had had enough. He can't take it anymore. And I'm going to kill myself.

ABRAMSON: The Harperings quickly reported this to the college. Jeremy was taken to the hospital where he was placed under observation. The very next day, Jeremy received a letter from the school. Michael Harpering reads from it.

Mr. HARPERING: It says, "Dear Jeremy, this letter is to inform you that your threat to harm yourself on Thursday, April 10th, 2008, was in violation of the college policy as described in the college..."

ABRAMSON: That letter placed Jeremy on involuntary leave until January of 2009 at the earliest, citing the suicide threat as the soul reason. The college refused to reconsider and placed a disciplinary suspension on Jeremy's permanent record. The College of Mount St. Joseph would not talk to NPR, but did release a written statement saying, quote, "The college's code of conduct and policies do allow for the suspension or dismissal of a student as a result of a single serious infraction."

The Harperings say they also asked for a voluntary medical leave but that the college refused. Other schools say sometimes they have no choice but involuntary leave to deal with mental health problems. Greg Eells is the head of the counseling service at Cornell University in New York.

Dr. GREGORY EELLS (Director, Counseling and Psychological Services, Cornell University New York): Because it's really about protecting and balancing the rights of the community too. Sometimes students can disrupt other students' educational experiences and educational environment. It's our responsibility to look out for those students also.

ABRAMSON: Bonnie and Michael Harpering have turned to the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Education, which has opened an investigation. Karen Bower of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law has fought involuntary leave decisions as potential violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. She says colleges may not suspend students simply for expressing suicidal thoughts.

Ms. KAREN BOWER (Staff Attorney, Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law): Before placing a student on an involuntary leave of absence, they have to determine whether or not the student actually is a direct threat, assuming that there are not mitigating measures that could reduce any risk to a reasonable level.

ABRAMSON: But several parents told NPR their kids were whisked away from other college campuses the moment they mentioned thoughts of suicide. These other families asked for anonymity because they decided to comply with the rules of the suspensions in the hope of getting readmitted. Mark Salzer of the University of Pennsylvania has been surveying counseling centers about this issue. He says students often face an obstacle course when they try to return from suspension.

Dr. MARK SALZER (Assistant Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania): They need additional letters of recommendation. They're interviewed by senior-level college officials like deans and head psychiatrists, and they also are being asked to provide their college and university with access to their medical records.

ABRAMSON: To avoid all that, Jeremy Jackson and his parents decided not to return. Instead, they found a new school in Indianapolis. They don't have any guarantees, but they say if Jeremy does hit another rough patch, at least they'll know what questions to ask. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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