The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts on Monday found that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and some of its professors and officials, could not be sued for the suicide in 2009 of a graduate student who jumped off a building and killed himself. He did so shortly after being told by a faculty member that an email he had sent was unprofessional and rude.
While the unanimous ruling is a legal victory for MIT, the court also found that colleges have an obligation in some cases to prevent suicides and may be sued for failing to do so. Significantly, the finding extends beyond those on campuses with expertise in mental health. There are situations, the court found, where professors and others could be sued for failing to do so.
That is crucial in part because many students who attempt suicide have never used campus mental health services.
The ruling stresses that college students are not all alike -- in this case the student was an adult, living off campus and seeking treatment outside MIT. But even in such cases, the court found, there can be legal obligations for a college and its professors.
"Moral blameworthiness on the part of a university in failing to act to intervene to save a young person's life, when it was within the university's knowledge and power to do so, is understood and accepted by our society," said the decision.
Even if MIT and other universities have missions that are primarily academic, their role extends into many aspects of student life, the court said. "Universities are clearly not bystanders or strangers in regards to their students."
While the ruling is by a Massachusetts court, the decision comes at a time of rising pressure on colleges to protect students in cases that some college leaders say may be unrealistic, or may discourage colleges from enrolling students with mental health issues. In March, the California Supreme Court found that public colleges in the state must warn and shield their students from potential violent acts.
The Massachusetts ruling is particularly notable for its findings about "non-clinicians" such as professors and deans who are not trained in mental health issues and do not work in campus counseling centers
For professors and others in this category, the court found, the obligation to act to prevent a possible suicide is limited to circumstances where they have "actual knowledge" of a previous suicide attempt while a student was enrolled, or shortly before enrolling, or a student has communicated "stated plans or intentions to commit suicide."
The faculty member or other "non-clinician" has the obligation of "initiating the university's suicide prevention protocol." If there is not one, the obligation is to inform someone, such as a trained medical professional, who can review the situation and intervene if necessary. If medical care is refused, the college employee has an obligation to notify the student's emergency contact, the court found. The ruling notes that students' mental health is subject to change, and these obligations relate to current or recent events, not a professor's knowledge about something that happened many years prior.
"This limited duty takes a number of the complex and competing considerations discussed above into account," the ruling said. "First, it respects the privacy and autonomy of adult students in most circumstances, relying in all but emergency situations on the student's own capacity and desire to seek professional help to address his or her mental health issues."
The decision continued: "Second it recognizes that non-clinicians cannot be expected to probe or discern suicidal intentions that are not expressly evident. It also acknowledges the scope of the suicide risk on campus and seeks to impose realistic duties and responsibilities on the universities, allowing them to respond with their own suicide prevention protocols … Finally, this limited duty is consistent with the modern university relationship with its students, which is no longer in loco parentis but rather provides for the students' independence and self-determination."
The lawsuit that led to Monday's ruling was filed by the father of Han Duy Nguyen, the graduate student who ended his life in 2009. The court found that the none of the situations outlined for institutional and individual responsibility to prevent suicide applied in Nguyen's case, even though some faculty members were aware in general that he was struggling with mental health issues.
The court ruling noted that Nguyen "repeatedly made clear" that he wanted to separate his mental health issues from his academic work. Further, he was being treated outside MIT for those issues.
Nguyen tried to kill himself twice prior to 2009 -- once in 2002 and once in 2005. But the ruling noted that these incidents were well before he enrolled at MIT, and said there was no evidence that faculty members knew of these suicide attempts.
Jeffrey S. Beeler, the lawyer for the Nguyen family, told The Boston Globe that he was disappointed that the court had not held MIT responsible in this case. But Beeler said that the ruling would help other students.
“There can be little doubt that the rule of the Nguyen case will save student lives going forward,’’ he said. “Contrary to the position of [higher education institutions] … the court has explicitly found that they do owe a duty of care to their students at risk of suicide.”
Many colleges in Massachusetts filed briefs in the case, backing MIT and urging the court to reject the lawsuit.
MIT released a statement after the ruling that said in part, "The well-being of our students is of paramount importance to the Institute: MIT already offers a robust network of student support resources and services, including comprehensive mental health counseling, and continually considers ways to enhance those resources.”