Eighteen-year-old Charles Mahoney had barely begun his freshman year at Allegheny College when his mental health began to deteriorate.
The smart and handsome quarterback from Burgettstown, newly arrived at football camp, reported feeling panicky and depressed, and experienced the first of what would be many suicidal thoughts.
Despite ongoing psychiatric counseling and medication, the next 21/2 years would prove an inexorable slide toward crippling depression. Mr. Mahoney was hospitalized briefly in Erie during the summer of 2000, quit the football team and broke up with his longtime girlfriend. The downward spiral culminated in February 2002, when he hanged himself in his fraternity house.
A year later, Mr. Mahoney's parents, Deborah and Charles, who is the superintendent of the Chartiers-Houston School District in Washington County, filed a lawsuit against Allegheny College and two of the professionals who treated their son, saying they might have prevented his death but failed to intervene, even after observing clear signs that he posed an immediate threat to himself.
College administrators nationwide worried about their liability in similar cases are expected to take great interest in the trial. A lawsuit that had been anticipated to become a landmark case was settled out of court this year.
That case involved the 2000 death of Elizabeth Shin, a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her parents alleged the institution had failed to prevent her apparent suicide. In the settlement, her father said his daughter's death was "likely a tragic accident."
The Chronicle of Higher Education reported this year that some colleges had taken to forcing students to take mandatory leaves if they appear suicidal.
Mr. Mahoney's story is now a matter for a Crawford County jury to consider. Jury selection in the trial begins tomorrow in Meadville.
"Our contention is, and it's a matter of public record, that the counselors and/or the doctors should have contacted his parents and put him on a leave of absence from the college, or had him involuntarily hospitalized," said the Mahoney family's attorney, Denny Phillips, of Washington, Pa. "The essence of this case is that, when the final crisis arose, responsible people did not take action to protect him."
Mr. Phillips said the Mahoney family did not want to be interviewed for this report. He declined to give the specific monetary damages the family is seeking, saying only, "They want this issue out in the open."
The issue comes down to how much legal blame does a college or university bear for the suicide of a 20-year-old student with a documented history of mental illness? And how much right to privacy did Charles Mahoney have?
"In the time during which he was deteriorating, he was in contact with his parents," Mr. Phillips said. "He did not tell them all this stuff because he didn't want to burden them."
Kerry Kearney, attorney for Allegheny College and counselor Jacquelyn Kondrot, counters that Mr. Mahoney refused hospitalization on several occasions. According to the law, she said, there is an obligation to keep patient information private unless there is consent.
"He was suicidal from the time he got to college, and he was suicidal during the entire time he was there," Ms. Kearney said. "There was never a time when he wasn't at risk for suicide, and his parents knew that."
According to Ms. Kearney, Ms. Kondrot repeatedly consulted with other professionals during her treatment of Mr. Mahoney.
"Unfortunately, this all comes down to a judgment call," Ms. Kearney said, "and you make a judgment call with what you know."
Not all colleges follow the same privacy rules as Allegheny. At Carnegie Mellon University, parents are informed if a student is debilitated or unable to make a sound health decision, said Anita Barkin, director of student health services. The parents of a student with anorexia nervosa who is unable to keep himself or herself healthy would get a call from the university, as would the parents of a student who had suffered a head injury and was too disoriented to make his or her own medical decisions.
"We value and protect students' privacy to the nth degree," Ms. Barkin said, "unless we're convinced that a student poses a significant threat to himself or others or is unable to make a reasonable, informed decision regarding his health care."
Disclosure of medical records at universities is governed by a 1974 law called the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which prohibits colleges from releasing information about their students without student permission.
Many schools, including Carnegie Mellon, ask students to sign a consent form allowing parents to be involved in the student's health discussions; health professionals say it is uncommon for a student to refuse this consent.
"That allows the student to be more comfortable, involving parents or family members if they know they can have some control over the type of information that's given," Ms. Barkin said.
The only way the university would override the student's wishes, she said, was "if we felt that the patient was unable to make reasonable and responsible decisions."
There are laws, policies and ethical guidelines to be followed, Ms. Barkin said, but in the end, each situation and its variables must be addressed on a case-by-case basis.Charles Mahoney: Downward spiral culminated in 2002 suicide.