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Colleges and the liability dilemma

For the past six months, a Yale junior has been threatened with suspension because of her weight. At 92 pounds and 5 feet 2 inches, Yale Health officials considered her unhealthily underweight, according to an op-ed she wrote for The Huffington Post titled “Yale University Thinks I Have an Eating Disorder.” Despite her arguments that her weight had been stable for years and that she is small by genetics, Yale Health had been requiring weekly weigh-ins and encouraging her to gain weight, she wrote. Although she said she began “stuffing herself with carbs and junk food daily to gain weight”, she only gained two pounds, which was not enough to satisfy Yale Health.

Only after publishing the op-ed, writing a letter to the university president and finally getting a chance to meet with a different health professional at Yale, was she able to limit her weekly weigh-ins to once per semester. Afraid of the liability issues that would result from keeping a student with an eating disorder, Yale straightforwardly looked at her body mass index, determined it was lower than was considered normal and asked that she either gain weight or be placed on medical leave.

Similarly at Princeton, a student who attempted suicide in 2012 was banned from his classes and evicted from his dorm room, essentially forcing his withdrawal from the University, according to a recent lawsuit filed by the student against the University. The student was deemed unlikely to “pose an imminent risk of harm to himself or others” by the hospital that treated him but ultimately had to withdraw under administrative influence. In the suit’s complaint, he stated that forcing his withdrawal would produce emotional distress and make his condition worse, but “instead, Princeton sought to protect itself from adverse publicity or liability.”

These students’ stories are examples of the recent controversies concerning universities and their treatment of mental health. In trying to protect themselves from liability issues stemming from students with mental health problems harming themselves or others, universities often overlook the nuances of each specific case and end up making decisions that exacerbate the students’ problems. As soon as universities identify a certain degree of mental trouble through bright-line measures, they take steps to protect themselves and their reputations, rather than acting to help the student.

This is not to say that universities should treat serious mental health issues lightly. In some cases, students present demonstrated danger to themselves or others and should be asked to leave campus. In the Virginia Tech shooting, the student perpetrator had several counseling appointments before the incident indicating continuing problems. One counselor marked “troubled: further contact within two weeks” in the form that rated the severity of his condition, and the student indicated in a second phone conversation with counselors that his depression was persisting, but then refused to follow up. However, the Virginia Tech case shares little in common with the ones mentioned above. Several different medical professionals indicated that the Virginia Tech student was a potential danger to himself and those around him. The Yale student had only consulted with one professional who refused to consider her weight history, and the Princeton student consulted with a hospital that concluded that he was not a danger to himself nor anyone else.

Mental health, and consequently, university actions, can’t be dealt with in a binary manner. Each case has its own best course of action, whether that means suspension or monitoring. However, applying suspension as a blanket treatment to signs of mental stress, regardless of the circumstances or severity, is not the solution. In fact, it may hurt more than it helps. The Yale student said that she felt pressure from her school-appointed counselor to overeat and risk developing a binge eating disorder just to assure officials that she did not have a nonexistent one.

When the fear of liability goes too far, universities begin protecting themselves instead of helping the students. Instead of using bright-line tests such as a BMI below a certain threshold or the instance of a suicidal action, universities should adopt a more holistic approach. Perhaps universities can call upon the judgments of multiple professionals instead of just one and consider the judgments of outside professionals, as in the case of the Princeton student, especially when their judgments disagree. Mental health issues operate on a spectrum, and the best course of action should be chosen accordingly – on a case-by-case basis instead of a blanket suspension.

Barbara Zhan is an Operations Research and Financial Engineering major from Plainsboro, N.J. She can be reached at barbaraz@princeton.edu.

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