The Runner Debates: Should Universities Inform Parents About a Student’s Mental Health Issues?

Making parents aware of their children’s depression and anxiety can potentially save lives

(Nicola Kwit)

Read the other half of the argument here:

(Nicola Kwit)

In university, students are forced to balance full course loads and part-time jobs with financial, social, and emotional lives. It’s no wonder, then, that mental illnesses typically begin to manifest in our late teens and early twenties.

There are almost never easy answers when it comes to helping those who struggle with depression or anxiety, but one of the biggest debates surrounding the topic is whether universities possess the right to inform parents if their child is showing signs of mental illness.

I can understand why a third party alerting a university student’s parents about the state of their mental health could be considered a breach of privacy. But consider this:

In March 2010, Jack Windeler committed suicide while attending Queen’s University. According to a Globe and Mail article, “his parents had no idea he had stopped attending class, withdrawn socially and was depressed.” Six years later, in December 2016, Canadian student Graham Burton committed suicide while attending Hamilton College in New York.

What’s the commonality between these cases? The students’ mental health problems were known to faculty, but their parents only learned about it after the deaths of their children.

Many parents are ignorant of their child’s mental health problems because of the stigma that’s still attached to mental illness and receiving treatment for it. People with mental illnesses are often afraid to tell friends and loved ones about their hardships due to a fear of being ostracized, ridiculed, or told that it’s “all in their heads.” Therefore, parents are often the last people to know that their child is suffering.

These students do not need to suffer in silence. With therapy and/or medication, a person suffering from mental illness has a chance to be happy, healthy, and lead a full life. A university student suffering from a severe mental illness likely won’t possess the psychological wherewithal to get help. In these situations, they must have an adult intervene on their behalf.

Over the years that a student spends attending university, their professors get to know them. They learn about their students’ work ethics, social lives, and personalities. Therefore, when one of them starts socially withdrawing, skipping class, or exhibiting other out-of-the-ordinary behavior which could be indicative of a mental illness, chances are that the professors will notice.

According to the Globe and Mail article, laws currently allow for “privacy to be breached—read: contacting parents or guardians—only if a student poses an imminent danger to themselves or others.”

This is a step in the right direction, but I believe that university faculty have a moral obligation to inform the students’ parents when they’re made aware of their severe mental health problems regardless of whether or not they’re at immediate risk of harming themselves or others.

The student might be angry or upset that their privacy was breached, but when they receive treatment and their lives improve, they’ll be grateful.

We should strive to alleviate the suffering of others whenever possible. And if the only way to achieve this goal is to violate a student’s right to privacy so they receive the treatment they desperately need, then so be it.