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Know Your Rights

September 24, 2008

Citing concerns that college students are being kicked off campus for exhibiting mental illness, a mental health advocacy group is encouraging students to learn their rights.

The Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, which has previously aided in litigation against universities for discriminating against mentally ill students, has introduced a new student guide that serves as a sort of how-to manual for students seeking counseling. In short snippets, the 27-page document answers questions like “Can I be forced to take medication?” and “Can my school require me to take leave?”

Alison Malmon, a mental health advocate who helped design the guide, said it’s intended to allay students’ fears about seeking treatment while also informing students that they are entitled to privacy and other rights when they enter counseling.

“We are essentially saying, ‘Hey students, stand up for yourselves,’ ” said Malmon, who started a mental health awareness group called Active Minds after her brother committed suicide while in college.

The online guide, entitled “Campus Mental Health: Know Your Rights,” is being promoted through the distribution of 5,000 postcards sent to more than 150 college campuses with Active Minds chapters across the country.

The Bazelon Center’s outreach effort is designed to steer more students toward mental health care providers, including campus counseling centers. At the same time, however, officials with the center still express skepticism that colleges -- often fearing liability -- opt to remove students rather than treat them.

“Unfortunately, we do still see the same types of cases,” said Karen Bower, a lawyer for the Bazelon Center. “We’re even seeing schools using disciplinary measures to deal with mental health issues.”

The Bazelon Center helped to represent Jordan Nott, a George Washington University student who said he was forced to leave campus after seeking help for depression. Nott reached a confidential settlement with the university in 2006.

Some Are Lukewarm to Guide

Bazelon officials say they’ve been pleased to find that college counselors appear open to distributing the guide on their campuses, even though the center has sometimes been critical of the way colleges address mental health issues. At a Tuesday briefing, Bazelon officials have specifically cited the support of the Association for University & College Counseling Center Directors. But, according to the association’s president, the group's board of directors is still debating whether to put the Bazelon guide on its own Web site.

“The thing I like about their document for students is it does give students a good kind of background,” said Gregory Eells, president of the association and director of counseling and psychological services at Cornell University. “The pieces that are a little contentious, and probably where our board members have some concerns and want discussions, were statements about some institutions giving confidential information to student affairs administrators like it’s standard practice.”

While there may be isolated cases where counseling centers have shared confidential information, Eells said “any institution that is doing that is really in the fringes.”

Ann H. Franke, a consultant on higher education legal and risk issues, reviewed the guide Tuesday and said “basically it’s a useful document.” She did, however, “have a few quibbles.” Franke took issue, for instance, with the document’s contention that students shouldn’t be disciplined for behaviors that are “due to” an illness.

“Institutions are trying hard to look at behavior as behavior and not behavior as a consequence of illness,” Franke said. “Yes, a student with a disability may be able to curb behavior with reasonable accommodations, but behavior is behavior. I agree with the guide the students should not be disciplined for seeking help, but they do have responsibilities for their behavior.”

Franke also said the guide might have more credibility on college campuses if counselors and college administrators had helped to fashion the document. The guide was developed by the Bazelon Center staff and members of the center’s Leadership21 Committee, a group of young adults with interest in mental health advocacy issues.

“I think [the authorship] limits the effectiveness or the sort of legitimacy of the document from an institutional standpoint,” Franke said. “And that may not be what they’re seeking, but I think I would urge them to do that.”

 

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