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.
Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
| 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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