Visit to university mental health center at deepens problems for some students

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A class action lawsuit has been filed against Stanford University by students alleging that the university discriminated against them due to mental health status. Many students said that they were forced to take leaves of absence from the university rather than have their needs addressed on campus.

The details of this lawsuit is outlined in this New York Times article. The article discusses the question of students mental health needs as a dilemma many universities face, and describes an the number of students facing mental health issues as an “epidemic.” Advocates for students argue that universities underreact or overreact to mental health issues that arise with students.

Universities can sometimes be a rather strange settings for mental health departments. Student services have grown over the last several decades at universities. Universities bolster their services in response to identified student needs, and they probably also do so in order to be competitive with other universities. But being under the administrative structure of a university means that mental health system administrators might find themselves reporting to bosses who have other priorities besides their students’ mental health.

In reading between the lines of the NYT article, one thing I found unsettling was in the way university policy intervened in what should be a decision between the student and their therapist. This type of thinking, to me is a relic of an assembly-line mentality in managing mental health. Unfortunately many social service agencies are structured that way. Such a way of thinking can be very dehumanizing. We are not machines. We are all unique. Each of us is a product of our own experiences and it is unreasonable to think that everyone will respond in the same way to the same kind of treatment

Another disturbing outcome university oversight of student mental health surfaced in 2015 when the University of Oregon successfully accessed a student’s mental health records when she sued the university over mishandling her rape case. The University tried to label the student’s lawsuit “frivolous,” and demanded that she repay legal expenses the university incurred in the suit. Disturbingly, the student’s post-rape counseling records were going to be used as part of a counterclaim against the lawsuit–over the strong objections of her therapist and the senior staff therapist. Ultimately, the university withdrew their counterclaim, perhaps in response to the public outcry over the tactics they were planning to employ.

In a 2008 document, the US Department of Education upheld the right for the university to access those records because they are considered university records, not medical records. While medical records are considered to be protected by HIPAA (Heath Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) university records are protected by FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), a much older, much weaker set of regulations. The DoE explicitly stated that HIPAA does not apply to such records.

Students should keep these negative experiences in mind when seeking mental health assistance. Depending on the university and on the situation, the university may not be the best place to turn to when dealing with mental health issues. These two case studies illustrate what happens when a university uses your own statements against you, even in a setting that is supposedly confidential. Anyone considering seeking mental health services from a university should examine the university’s policies regarding confidentiality.

It’s worth noting that the U of O senior therapist who blew the whistle on the university’s actions engaged in an arguably heroic effort to assert the student’s best interests and that of the psychotherapy profession. Without a doubt, there are good therapists and not so good therapists at many mental health facilities, including universities. The quality of mental health support depends in part on the quality of the therapist and the quality of the administrators above the therapist.

But there is a certain point where student needs may play second fiddle to what the university considers to be its own best interests, and as such buyers should beware.