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Why colleges hide mental illness

I'm still thinking about my colleague Jenna Johnson's front page piece last week on changing college policies toward alcohol abuse. It turns out that a little-noticed amendment in the law in 1998 allows them to notify parents if undergraduate children under 21 have any booze or drug violations. If only they were as generous in letting families know when their children are suffering from mental or emotional illnesses.

The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 may be the most frequently misinterpreted law in the land, and the most destructive of family peace of mind. It prevents universities from sharing most student information, but allows them to contact parents if a child's health or safety is at risk.

Isn't that nice. It is a shame that so many university officials have chosen to err on the side of not helping parents who haven't heard from their kid in months and wonder if something is wrong. This is the higher ed version of similarly destructive K-12 practices that deny parents information about abusive teachers, and what their children might have seen them do to other children, creating nightmares for a lifetime.

Many kids get into trouble in college. It is the prime age for manifestations of schizophrenia and other serious illnesses. They confront fears and situations they never had to deal with before. In a perfect world, universities would realize that and go the extra mile to get families involved. But they prefer to stay out of it. It's easier that way, and the law gives them a nice excuse.

I have been talking to John Zacker, director of student conduct at the University of Maryland, about the 1974 law and its consequences. He says that some higher ed officials cite the law without having read it carefully. They assume that they can't talk to parents about records that may show their child to be in trouble, but often the assumptions are wrong.

Congress passed changes in the law with respect to alcohol and drug abuse in 1998, after a rash of deaths and injuries to students because of alcohol. I am afraid it will take a similar string of tragedies with mentally ill students before Congress takes another look at that aspect of the law.

Feeding this neglect is a nasty stereotype that parents who show concern for their children in college are abusive themselves. Campus administrators love the term "helicopter parents," always hovering and trying to run their kids' lives. It still shocks them to hear the results of a survey by the National Survey of Student Engagement showing that the children of super-involved parents had better experiences in college than those whose parents were not so involved.

This kind of ivy-covered wrongheadedness will fade in time, I hope. But for some families that will be too late.

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By Jay Mathews  | March 2, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Jay on the Web  | Tags:  colleges failure to inform parents about students in trouble, colleges freezing parents out, helicopter parents, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974  
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I agree with you that colleges should notify parents in cases of suspected mentally ill students. But, then they could be accused of labeling students or diagnosing students and they are not doctors.

I interpreted "helicopter parents" to be parents who called professors asking for grade changes. I think it is good to be involved, but not to accuse teachers or professors when your own child doesn't study.
As for super involved parents,
I used to view them skeptically until I was asked to tutor an 11th grader who was having trouble in the subject I taught. He improved greatly with the 1 hour a week tutoring and I was amazed that the parents were aware enough to get him the push he needed.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 2, 2010 8:40 AM | Report abuse

About all you can do is to try to get your own child to obtain the roommate's parents' name and phone number. Then if the roommate gets strange, the student can contact the roommate's parents or get his/her own parents to contact the other parents. It is not much, but it is better than nothing. Too often 19 and 20 year olds are the only "responsible" parties when a fellow student starts to unravel.

Posted by: pittypatt | March 2, 2010 9:43 AM | Report abuse

John Zucker of UMD sent me some additional comments:

College students increasingly come to our campuses with a variety of preexisting mental health concerns – some are being treated while others are not. Although I am not a mental health expert, schizophrenia and other serious mental illness are not the majority of issues. It is important to recognize that the law deems a college student as a legal adult. I don’t believe well-meaning college and university administrators are using the law as a “nice excuse” for not contacting parents. Recognize that for decades there has been a general “fear” of violating FERPA. Increasingly administrators are using the exceptions to FERPA for the reasons you identify, but are also trying to balance the responsibilities of a developing young adult and the appropriate role of supportive and loving parents.

Remember that as we spoke you recognized that we exercise professional judgment in such situations when to notify parents. The law is clear regarding the exceptions that “may” be exercised, but the law also provides for a judgment to be made. In the example you raise regarding serious mental illness, before I will make such judgment I will consult mental health professionals on our campus for this opinion as well. Understand that these decisions are made with considerable deliberation… but also that we are more likely to err on the side of contacting parents today under the exceptions.

I understand your cynicism… although I don’t agree with it, I appreciate the perspective that some might have. I encourage my staff and colleagues to err on the side of involving parents in serious conduct issues.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | March 2, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

What if the student is seeking birth control, or treatment for an STD, or abortion-related counseling? Notification of the parents can lead to some tricky issues.

Posted by: tomtildrum | March 2, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

Jay- Have you read Judith Warner's new book, We've Got Issues. It is about children and mental health issues. She cites a lot of the types of stereotypes about mental illness that affect treating younger children. Honestly for all our progress, we have not made nearly enough in addressing the ethical issues surrounding mental illness.

Posted by: Brooklander | March 2, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Colleges still don't notify parents about alcohol or drug issues, unless they "feel" it is warranted. Many kids are being suspended for violations in those categories, and the parents haven't a clue until the kid shows up on their doorstep. The kid typically wants to handle the hearing for the violation on their own, and thus the surprise.

I think in any case that warrants suspension (or expulsion) the parents should be notified..afterall, any kid in that situation, who hasn't shared with their parents, might be even more nervous about suddenly being home...they could be suspended, off campus and who knows where, and the parent wouldn't know until gosh knows when, and if they were abusing alcohol or drugs to "self-medicate" for emotional issues/mental health issues, then they just might get suicidal when caught and suspended.
I recognize that these are adults, in the "legal" sense, but folks in charge of adults should do what they can to ensure information is revealed that might save the kid, (or others if their mental illness causes violent reactions to others).

I have recently learned that families can have waivers signed to make sure information (including grades if the student allows) is shared with parents.

Posted by: researcher2 | March 2, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

What happened to your last post "Obama wrong.... Don't tell me the WaPo Turqued you

Posted by: mamoore1 | March 2, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

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