College Files Brief Supporting MIT in Suicide Lawsuit
Issue   |   Tue, 12/05/2017 - 19:23

Amherst College filed an amicus brief on Sept. 7 supporting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in a lawsuit filed against the university in 2011 by the family of Han Duy Nguyen, a doctoral student who died by suicide in 2009. The family is suing the institution, two professors and an associate dean, claiming that they did not do enough to help Nguyen even though they had known for months that he had ongoing mental health issues.

The suit alleges that one professor had a phone conversation with Nguyen minutes before his death, in which the professor scolded Nguyen for an email Nguyen had sent — “I read him the riot act,” the professor wrote to another faculty member after the call, according to court documents.

MIT and its officials have denied that their actions played a role in Nguyen’s death. According to MIT’s lawyer, the school referred Nguyen to on-campus mental health services, but Nguyen decided to see an off-campus psychologist.

The lawsuit reached the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court earlier this year.

In a joint brief with 17 other colleges in Massachusetts including Harvard, Tufts, Williams and Smith, Amherst made its support of MIT clear. The brief said that the court should not expand Massachusetts tort law to “create a duty that requires non-clinician university employees to secure students against self-inflicted harm” and that universities should not be held to a “voluntarily assumed” duty to prevent student suicide simply because they provide certain mental health services.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 15 and 34, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

According to Chief Communications Officer Sandy Genelius, who consulted the Office of the General Counsel in her response, the college “carefully considered the request” to join the 17 other schools in supporting MIT, an effort initiated by Boston University.

“It’s important to clarify that the heart of the matter in this lawsuit is not a question of us not caring about our students — we deeply and sincerely do and hope that, in some way, we meaningfully demonstrate that every day — or whether faculty or staff should be indifferent to a student experiencing mental distress,” Genelius wrote in an email interview.

She cited the college’s provisions of mental health resources, including the Counseling Center, case managers in the Office of Student Affairs, a 24/7 on-call counselor and Student Affairs administrator, faculty and staff who are “sensitized to the issue” and “routinely refer students to these resources.”

Suicide, she said, is an “incredibly complex and devastating issue for those who are touched by it.” The brief does not dispute that, she said. Rather, it questions whether the court should create obligations for faculty and staff “that are potentially counter to students’ best interests.”

The issue of obligations being discussed in this case, she said, could theoretically require schools to take actions resulting in a higher number of student involuntary withdrawals, which “could have the unintended and unfortunate consequence of creating an environment where students in Massachusetts become disinclined to seek assistance with mental health issues out of concern that their school would overreact.”

President Biddy Martin wrote in a statement to The Student that the brief “is not intended in the least to deny our commitment to or our moral responsibility for student welfare and well-being.”

The college chose to join the brief, she said, “because the court has been asked to go so far in the direction of assigning individual blame that it could have the practical effect of placing students experiencing suicidal thoughts at even greater peril when individuals who are not mental health professionals are required by law to take matters into their own hands in ways that are harmful rather than helpful.”

The 18 Massachusetts colleges and universities felt that the court needed to hear the colleges’ perspective before making a decision, Martin added.

According to Associate Dean of Students and Director of the Counseling Center Jacqueline Alvarez, the Counseling Center conducts mandatory training sessions with residential counselors on recognizing distress and responding to signs of suicidal ideation.

The Counseling Center also works with Residential Life and Student Affairs to educate case managers, assistant directors, class deans and office employees on basic support skills for students in moments of distress and referral skills to connect students with resources.

Alvarez added that Jessica Gifford, associate director of health education and mental health promotion, holds similar programming for faculty and staff, though it is not mandatory.

When a student expresses suicidal intent, “we strongly encourage faculty not to hold that information, but either to pass that on to the class dean or our office directly so that students can get the help that they need,” she said.

“We don’t expect anybody in the community to be taking on that kind of responsibility given they may not have the training or the expertise to support the student that way,” she added.

Once a student expresses suicidal ideation or intent to self-harm, Alvarez said, the Counseling Center makes a risk assessment based on four factors: long-term, unchangeable risk factors that put people at higher risk for either engaging in a suicide attempt or high-risk behavior such as history of trauma; acute factors that assess what is currently ongoing for the student such as intensity, duration and frequency of suicidal thoughts; potential mitigating or protective factors that would decrease the likelihood of self-harm such as social support and engagement with treatment; and potential triggers that might increase risk such as acts of violation to the student.

Students have the right to decline services, however, and all counseling is voluntary. Amherst does not mandate counseling or assessments.

In the end, Genelius wrote, the college wanted to ensure students were aware of the college’s resources if they underwent mental health crises and felt comfortable using those resources.

“We decided to join the brief with 17 other schools because we were concerned that the court’s ruling could be unintentionally and unfortunately antithetical to those goals,” she said.