Colleges Cut Parents Out of the Loop on Students' Mental Health

The 32 victims of the Virginia Tech massacre have become a point of grim fascination, but the gunman was far from the only college student suffering from a serious mental illness.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, nearly half of all college students report feeling so depressed at some point that they have trouble functioning.

This is unchartered territory for universities and parents, many of whom are unaware that if their child becomes mentally ill while away at college, they can be kept out of the loop.

Seven years ago, Alison Malmon received news that changed her life forever: Her older brother Brian had committed suicide.

"My brother was a typical successful college student, who was able to maintain a 3.8 GPA. He became sports editor and columnist for the school newspaper. … He had dreams and aspirations. He wanted to go to law school," she said. "He didn't want to acknowledge that something was wrong."

But something was very wrong. During his freshman year at Columbia University, Brian started experiencing symptoms of depression and over the next few years continued to suffer in his own private hell.

"His friends noticed changes in him but didn't say anything to him. They didn't know what to say," Alison said.

Finally in his senior year, Brian took a voluntary leave of absence and headed home to begin treatment, but it wasn't enough. A year and half later, he took his own life.

Alison was determined to make something good come out of such a tragedy. From her determination came Active Minds, a national nonprofit organization that Alison, now the executive director, created. It is dedicated to raising mental health awareness on campuses through peer programs.

"Students themselves are not being educated from the beginning," she said. "Students are the main line of defense, and they're living with each other as roommates, they're in the same hall, on the same sports team, eating in the same cafeteria. They see signs much more quickly than any faculty or staff."

The transition to college, the pressure to make new friends and adapt to new surroundings can leave many students vulnerable to depression.

But if a college student seeks help for a mental health problem on campus, the school does not always have to notify parents.

"There have to be clear circumstances if you're going to breach because when students get to college they're considered adults, and the only ways in which you can breach confidentiality is when there is a safety issue involved," said Dr. Richard Kadison, author of "College of the Overwhelmed."

More and more colleges and universities across the country are unprepared for the amount of students needing help.

"The chief concern is that people don't feel they have adequate budgets or adequate resources to provide enough counseling on campus for students," Kadison said.

So many young students, considered adults by the law, often suffer to the point where it's too late.

"Students are seeing three- to four-week delays in getting help," Alison said.

"Part of the mission of colleges needs to be to educate faculty, staff, students to recognize some of the warning signs of more serious problems like depression," Kadison said. "So the more we can talk openly about these things and recognize that this is part of a support system that everyone should have in place, the better off we'll be."