Walking the Edge

NYU confronts its suicide problem with counseling and a questionable questionnaire

As a result, many students and some faculty have criticized the administration for being tight-lipped about the issue. Allen Salkin, a former adjunct professor at NYU, used his website last year to criticize the university's handling of the suicides. "NYU is still acting like a multinational corporation with an unsafe product," he says. He argues that the school leadership has a strategy of deflecting blame before acknowledging the sadness and the tragedy of the student deaths.

NYU is certainly not the only school trying to deal with recent waves of suicide. George Washington University, for example, has had six student deaths since December of 2003, three of which were suicides. NYU has, however, become a focal point of this national, even global, epidemic.

illustration: Rachel Salomon

"What is wrong with NYU that all these kids are taking their lives?" says Rachel Basse, a junior in the university's general studies program.

Experts say the problem isn't NYU at all. "The deaths at NYU are tragic, but not remarkable," Silverman says. "It doesn't indicate something is wrong with the university."

Many students seem to agree, though some say NYU's quiet way of handling the deaths has created student apathy. Roy Miler, a freshman from Long Island, says the suicides didn't affect his decision to go to college there at all. Miler does say he's angry about one thing. "A buddy of mine told me that we were supposed to have a couple days off after a suicide, that a lot of schools do that," he says. As for the mandatory health and mental health presentation all freshmen were required to attend during orientation, Miler says he didn't go.

Basse remembers that the first suicides in Bobst Library were hard to deal with. "But now the reaction is, 'Oh, another one,' " she says.

If the students have become ho-hum, the school hasn't. Caught between asking too much and not doing enough, NYU seems to be struggling to find an antidote that doesn't exist.

"Even with most comprehensive, carefully designed prevention and intervention efforts, there is always going to be someone who is intent on killing themselves," says Dr. Madelyn Gould, an epidemiologist from Columbia University who specializes in suicide epidemics.

Despite its best efforts, NYU has entered murky territory. Emily Stewart, a policy analyst with the Health Privacy Project, says nothing in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) explicitly prevents a university from sharing information internally. Yet she says the idea of following up with students who filled out a confidential form is "alarming."

Most problematic for Stewart was the potential that the information would be shared with the dormitory staff. "This could have a chilling effect on students," she says. "It could have a negative impact on how students seek care at NYU."

NYU does not have a policy for dealing with troubling responses found on its new questionnaire. Each student will be dealt with "on a case-by-case basis," Taylor says.

That wouldn't necessarily shield the school from charges of discrimination, Mathis says. "It is very fact-dependent, but many courts would find many types of follow-up discriminatory because they are unduly intrusive and can make people feel excluded," she explains.

In taking an active role with regard to its students' mental health, any university walks a fine line between trying not to violate civil rights and trying to save lives. "There will always be ethical, legal, and civil rights concerns," Jamison says. "But there are also concerns about doing nothing."

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