The rising statistics on suicide and suicidal thoughts among college-age students has garnered national attention in the past decade. An estimated 1,100 college students commit suicide annually and six percent of undergraduates have reported suicidal ideations during a given year. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among college students. And most college suicides are completely preventable.

Warning Signs – University Responsibility

Many universities have implemented suicide prevention programs as well as initiatives to address the risk of student suicide. The majority of universities mandate counseling assessment sessions when a student shows signs of suicidal tendencies, attempts or threats. Academic institutions have ethical and legal obligations to all of their students, and in particular to students that exhibit signs and symptoms of mental illness.

Signs and Symptoms

In most cases – professors, residential hall advisors, and other administration officials can be held responsible for failing to properly respond to a student that shows signs of mental illness or suicidal tendencies. Some of these symptoms are:

  • Suicidal tendencies, thoughts, statements or actions;
  • Excessive absences from class(es);
  • Alcohol abuse;
  • Drug Abuse; and
  • Antisocial behavior

University Liability

Universities can be held responsible for not protecting students from committing suicide. The relevant question is whether the school or its faculty could have reasonably expected the student to harm himself as a result of its failure to intervene. This situation arises when the school or a member of its faculty has actual knowledge that a student attempted suicide while enrolled at the university, or shortly prior to matriculating; or the student communicated a desire or plan to commit suicide to faculty or staff members. In any of these circumstances, a university can be held liable if the student actually harms himself.

University Obligations

A university’s obligation to keep students safe, once it is aware that a student attempted to commit suicide or intends to commit suicide, includes helping the student obtain proper clinical care; implementing a suicide prevention protocol; and/or contacting the police. Failure to meet these obligations, irrespective of whether specific individuals or academics have any clinical background, could lead to a finding of liability on the part of the institution.

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