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Discrimination Against Students with Mental Health Issues On the Rise

By Kim Lachance Shandrow

In the wake of the recent Northern Illinois University shooting and the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, the trend of taking harsh disciplinary actions against students with mental illnesses is on the rise. Instead of receiving vital treatment at a time when half of all college students admit to being so depressed that they can hardly function, many feel punished for reaching out. Countless students have been kicked off campus -- some even locked out of their dorm rooms – after seeking help for depression and other psychological problems. 

The campus mental health model, critics claim, is shifting from one of compassion to chastisement, and at times, outright discrimination. Fears of violence and liability, along with dwindling student services budgets, are evidently fueling the controversial shift.  

Students Fight Back

Jordan Nott, a former George Washington University student, sued the school after he was suspended following a 2004 mental health hospitalization. He alleged that information he shared with counselors about his severe depression was revealed to university administrators without his consent, leading to his suspension and eventual withdrawal.   

According to Nott’s attorney, Karen Bower, of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, her client’s confidentiality and right to remain on campus were protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act, among other federal and state laws. Nott later settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. 

In 2006, MIT reached a landmark settlement with the family of Elizabeth Shin, who fatally set fire to herself in her dorm room in 2000. Shin’s parents claimed that MIT failed to protect their daughter, who was treated by school counselors consistently for a year for severe depression and suicidal thoughts. The Shins’ initial $27.65 million wrongful death lawsuit sent shockwaves throughout college administrative offices nationwide.

Bower said she receives several calls a week from students who have been kicked off campus. The grounds for their involuntary leave range from a bipolar student’s minor reaction to the sleep aid Ambien to an immediate dismissal stemming from an instant message containing depressive thoughts.  

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