The Virginia legislature unanimously passed a bill Feb. 23 prohibiting the state’s universities from punishing or expelling students who seek mental health treatment for suicidal tendencies.
The legislation, sponsored by Democrat Delegate Albert C. Eisenberg, comes after several suicides at the state’s institutions in the past 10 years.
p. According to Vice President for Student Affairs Sam Sadler, the bill also responds to the expulsion of a George Mason University student last year. GMU dismissed the student after he expressed suicidal thoughts to school counselors.
p. Sadler said that the legislation would have little effect on the College, which already has an outlined mental health protocol.
Sadler added that the College has never — and never will — expel a student for having suicidal thoughts.
p. “We just don’t do that,” he said. “We do have a specific policy for suicidal students. If a student says ‘I’m going to kill myself tonight,’ the first thing we do is get medical attention — the kind of attention that can keep that person safe.”
p. After seeking immediate medical attention, the College must decide whether or not the student is mentally and physically able to continue academic work. To do so, the College follows a “medical/emotional emergency procedure.”
p. According to the student handbook, the MEEP policy allows the College to search for and confiscate a suicidal student’s personal belongings. The College can also suspend the student from academic and extracurricular activities and from residence halls.
p. “When the College medical/emotional emergency procedures are initiated, a student may not attend classes or activities or return to a residence hall until he or she has been given clearance to do so by the Dean of Students or a designee or the Vice President of Student Affairs,” the handbook says. “Failure to comply with the provisions of the College medical/emotional emergency procedure may result in judicial action.”
p. Dr. Kelly Crace, the director of the College’s Counseling Center, said that 10 percent of the College’s 5,500 undergraduates seek counseling during the academic year. Half of those students, Crace said, suffer from depression and anxiety. One third of all students who seek counseling also say that they have considered suicide.
p. To care for depressed students — especially those who are suicidal — Crace said that the MEEP protocol is the most effective. Crace also said that the protocol is enhanced by a four-person system, which involves the student seeking help, Dean of Students Patricia Volp, Director of the Student Health Center Dr. Gail Moses and Crace himself.
p. “Our primary goal is to devise an optimal treatment plan for a student who is suicidal,” Crace said.
p. Crace added that the four-person system addresses all of the students’ emotional, physical and academic concerns. Doing so allows the school to better assess the student’s ability to return to academic and social life at the College.
p. According to Sadler, most students who undergo MEEP soon return to academic and social life. There are instances however, when the College prohibits students from returning to school.
p. “[A student’s] return is based upon a counselor’s recommendation,” Sadler said. “If you can’t be sure that the student can stay safe [at the College], you have an ethical obligation to help that student get a medical withdrawal.”
p. Sadler also said that the program has been very successful.
p. “I do believe that the [mental health] policies, practices and protocols of the College have really been life-saving,” he said.
Sadler acknowledged that the school has experienced some problems with depression, including multiple suicides in 2005. He said that, while any loss of life is tragic, those deaths represented “strange proximities” and did not indicate that the College had an above-average suicide rate.
p. “If you look at William and Mary’s numbers over time, the rate of suicide is about half the national average,” Sadler said.