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Madison County Suicide Highlights Crises in Higher Learning

07.28.16 02:10 PM – Andy McDonald

Just how much responsibility does a learning institution bear when students suffer symptoms of mental illness? It’s a question college and university administrators will likely confront more frequently, according to mental health experts.

According to a survey by the American College Health Association (ACHA), suicide is the second leading cause of death among American college and university students in the USA. The same survey asserts that the rate of suicide among Americans aged 15-24 has tripled since the 1950s.

Because Madison County is home to two institutions of higher learning, Berea College and Eastern Kentucky University, the issue of college suicide has the potential to touch our community. One of those institutions already faces legal action following the death of a student in 2014. Out of respect for the victim, the name of the subject and the specific institution they attended is being withheld.

The tragedy unfolded in March 2014 when a distraught student contacted a college official by phone and reportedly expressed intent to take his own life. The student, it was said, was depressed because he was having troubles both socially and academically.

The college official in question dispatched two students to the dorm where the distraught student was located.
When the two assistants arrived, they were denied entry by desk attendant at the dorm. Four minutes later, they proceeded to the dorm room and knocked on the door, but while they heard sounds from within the room, they received no verbal response from the student in distress.

After failing to make contact with the student, the assistants went back to the desk attendant, but they were again refused entry, at which point they returned to the distressed student’s dorm room and convinced a fellow resident to help them gain access the locked dorm room where the distress call had originated.

But by the time the assistants gained entry, they discovered the troubled student had succeeded in taking his own life, presumably just minutes before.
Returning to the front desk of the dorm, the desk attendant was then convinced to call 911 to report the suspected suicide.

A civil action has since been filed in Madison County Circuit Court by the administratrix of the deceased student’s estate. The plaintiff alleges the college official failed to insure the safety of the distressed student by not calling 911. In addition, the complaint states that the official failed to initiate appropriate emergency procedures, and was thus a factor in the student’s death.

Whatever the facts are surrounding the above described case, one thing is likely. Assuming experts are right, and there is an increasing instance of mental health issues among college and university students, the institutions that house college students will be forced to factor those changing health trends into their risk management strategies.

They’ll be more aggressive in guarding against potential suicides. Perhaps the default response will be to call 911, even if the threat of suicide is considered to be relatively limited, or perhaps desk attendants will have to undergo special training to deal with such situations in the future. There are no easy answers, but those corresponding safeguards will likely drive up costs at colleges and universities. Welcome to 2016.
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