Recently The New York Times published an article about a growing controversy: As more college students commit suicide, parents are frustrated by medical and academic confidentiality laws that seemingly have prevented the colleges from contacting them about their children who are having mental health problems. What should be done about these situations?
When new patients come to my practice, I have them fill out a form that includes space to list an emergency contact. So far, no one has refused to name an emergency contact. I've only called an emergency contact once or twice in 16 years, but it is necessary for me to have this information, because someone's life could be at stake. Why don't colleges and universities do the same? I don't know. Perhaps their administrators believe psychiatric emergencies aren't their purview.
An emergency contact person is ideally someone who is willing to escort the person to an Emergency Room or stay with the person until the crisis is over.
In a genuine emergency, confidentiality laws don't apply. If someone in my practice tells me that he or she is planning on committing suicide, I ask to escort them to the Emergency Room, and if they refuse I would call 911. I do not need a confidentiality waiver to call 911, but, I have in fact never needed to call 911, because every time, the person has agreed to go to the hospital. A college counseling center should be staffed by licensed clinicians who are obligated to work with their patients the same way that I am.
What about situations in which a college student is deteriorating, but it's not yet an emergency? The student should be asked to take a leave of absence for a semester and engage in mental health treatment. Then the treating clinician should be asked to sign off on a form stating that the patient is not at risk, before the student can resume classes.