Across the nation parents are in the process of either welcoming home their college kids for the summer or they’re making preparations to send them off to college in the fall. Some will be letting go of their children for the first time, excited and anxious about the next chapter of life.
Let this be a wake-up call for those parents who believe the school will keep them informed if anything goes wrong with their kid. Probably the school will not.
Thanks to a federal law called the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) colleges and universities are under no legal obligation to tell tuition-paying parents anything, not even if their child is having a serious mental melt-down. Institutions of higher learning share a basic philosophy that students are adults. And FERPA is invoked as the reason to keep education records private. Parents are often baffled that they cannot get information about their child – not even their grades — unless and until the student signs a written consent form.
In reality, some teens are just not ready to become the master of their own life. High school graduates sent off to sometimes far-flung universities are unlikely to fully realize that no one is going to wake them up in the morning or help them organize their time and class load. College professors don’t engage in hand holding but, rather, expect students to be self-sufficient. After partying hard and missing too many classes the teen may come to realize their situation is beyond repair. Admitting failure to their parents can seem impossible. Anxiety, stress and depression commonly follow.
Campus statistics show the number of college students seeking mental health help has risen sharply over the past few years. Schools try to keep up with demand but the sad fact is that suicide is a leading cause of death for college-age students, second only to fatal accidents.
This is not a scare tactic. It is a fact.
University faculty and administrators might realize a child is under extreme mental strain but they are unlikely to call parents to warn them. They may counsel the student to speak to their parents about their situation but FERPA guidelines usually cause schools to err on the side of silence. In case after case parents across the country have been brought to their knees in grief upon learning that their seemingly happy and healthy college kid has killed themselves. Males, ages 17-24, take their own lives far more frequently than females.
Cases: The body of a sophomore at the University of New Mexico was discovered in his room at a fraternity house. He had been dead for several days. His mother said he had been suffering from depression for a long time. There is no indication he sought or received mental health care from the university.
A junior at the University of Pennsylvania chose not to confide in her parents but on several occasions told UPenn psychological services doctors that she was thinking about killing herself over worry that she would fail one of her classes. Ultimately, the 21-year-old walked into a dark tunnel at a train station and laid down on the tracks. The train operator couldn’t stop in time.
At least 14 UPenn students have committed suicide since 2013.
A student at Hamilton College, New York was so far behind in his course work he stopped going to class. Several members of the faculty e-mailed each other about his decline but no one alerted the parents. The 19-year-old’s adviser wrote the academic dean, “Obviously what’s happening here is a compete crash and burn. I don’t know what the procedures/rules are for contacting parents but if this was my kid, I’d want to know.” The student hanged himself in his dorm room.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court recently ruled that MIT was not negligent or responsible for the suicide of a graduate student who fell to his death in 2009. However, the court ruled institutions have some responsibility to protect their students’ lives if an employee reasonably anticipates the student would be harmed without intervention.
So, what’s a parent to do? Communicate with your student on a regular basis. Set a weekly Skype or Facetime call so you can see as well as hear what’s up with your child. Visit often, if you can, and get to know dorm mates and advisors. Get and give cell phone numbers. Ask if the school has a so-called “Students of Concern” list and, if possible, have your child sign a waiver allowing you to be contacted if they are ever placed on that list.
Letting our kids go out into the world is hard. Keeping in touch with their innermost feelings shouldn’t be.