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Student Suicide Lawsuits

When Colleges Ignore Signs of Depression and Suicide

An exceptionally sad and untold reality of college campus student life is the increasingly high rate of suicide among college students. In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students in the U.S., and 1,100 college students commit suicide every year. According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, between 6.6% and 7.5% of college undergraduate students reported having seriously considered attempting suicide in the year 2012. Unfortunately, because suicide is so sensitive, it is likely that these figures underestimate the problem.

The leading causes of suicide among college students include depression, substance abuse or dependence, behavioral disorder, anxiety disorders, previous suicide attempts, and self-injury without an intent to die that results in death. Individuals contemplating suicide often show signs of hopelessness, loneliness, social alienation and isolation, anger, risky behavior and impulsivity, poor coping skills, and may perceive themselves to be a burden on their family and friends.

For college students in particular, stressful life circumstances contribute to suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts. For example, relationship problems, school and work trouble, financial stress, current or past physical or psychological abuse, physical disabilities, discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender, or race, and insomnia can all cause depression and other mental health disorders. Transitioning from living at home to living in a dorm, surrounded by other students and trying to “fit in,” while coping with these difficulties can spark depression and suicidal tendencies. Without the support of family nearby or close friends, risky behavior is often what students turn to for relief from their depression.

Instead of covering up or ignoring these problems, universities should take affirmative measures to ensure that students struggling with these issues can easily find a support network. Colleges can require students to meet with guidance counselors who are trained to notice suicide signs, and who can be a trusted ally as students proceed through college and help students deal with difficult personal situations as they arise. In addition, colleges can educate students from day one about the problem of suicide on campuses, and make sure students are aware of support resources. This can also help to end the stigma associated with admitting you have a mental health disorder.

Finally, students need to look out for each other. Often, fellow students are in the best position to observe their classmates and uncover problematic behavior. Students should have training on how to care for each other, and should have an easy and anonymous way to report suicidal tendencies that they notice in classmates to mental health professionals.

Legally, courts have historically held that colleges are not liable for student suicides. However, recent cases show that this idea may be changing. There is a long-standing principle that colleges have no legal duty to prevent students from committing suicide. However, in some recent cases, courts have hinted that a special relationship might exist between a university and a student, which imposes a legal duty on the university to take action at least in cases where it is aware that a student is suffering from depression. For example, if a university receives a report that a student is acting abnormally or is depressed, and fails to reach out to the student to ensure the student’s safety, it may be possible to hold the university liable in tort law for the student’s death.

Moreover, tort law has always recognized the principle of “voluntary undertaking” liability. This means that if one person voluntarily assumes responsibility for helping another, the person has a legal duty to actually provide help. Thus, for example, if you saw an individual drowning in a lake, you have no duty to jump in and save them. However, if you voluntarily jump in the lake and start the process of saving them, the law requires you to actually save them or at least make a reasonable effort to complete the task. Applied to universities, this principle might hold a school liable when it begins to treat a student for depression and fails to take reasonable efforts to ensure that the student receives proper care and treatment.

This area of the law is evolving as new light is being shed on college campus suicides, and as universities begin to reevaluate their roles in ensuring that students receive proper mental health care. If you have lost a loved one to suicide, contact the student suicide attorneys at the law offices of Altman & Altman to learn more about your legal rights and options. Our compassionate team of expert tort lawyers will provide the knowledge, advice, and resources you need to determine the best course of action. We provide all clients with a free and confidential consultation to fully discuss their case, and explain what remedies may be available. Contact us today.

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