The suicide of 25-year-old student Han Nguyen has sparked a highly controversial legal debate. In fact, the case has now reached the Massachusetts Supreme Court.
According to the Associated Press, Nguyen, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, jumped off the top of a university building after he was confronted by a professor for an email he sent.
The email was reportedly deemed inappropriate, and the professor attempted to reprimand him for it.
Moments later, Nguyen took his own life.
Following his death, Nguyen’s family filed a lawsuit against the university.
MIT maintains the university had no knowledge of the seriousness of Nguyen’s struggles. Nguyen was treated by nine professionals outside the university for mental health during the course of his time at MIT, but the school argues not one of those professionals said they thought he was at risk of suicide.
Nguyen’s family, however, believes MIT should be held partially responsible. According to the AP, Nguyen’s family contends MIT professors and officials who interacted with the student knew he was at risk of committing suicide, but they did not help him.
The lawsuit alleges that months before Nguyen’s suicide, a professor asked other professors to pass the 25-year-old or they might have “blood on their hands.” In court documents reported by the AP, attorney Jeffrey Beeler wrote:
Academic freedom is not a license to needlessly and recklessly endanger students known to be at risk of death with impunity; and this court should not allow it to become one at institutions that routinely admit students — many with mental health issues — as young as their mid-teens.
It was reported Nguyen refused school help; however, his family says that is not true, and MIT is victim-blaming.
MIT’s attorneys, an MIT dean, and two MIT professors stated in court documents that although Nguyen’s death was “a tragedy,” it does not “warrant a legal conclusion that MIT or any individual associated with MIT had a legal duty to prevent it.”
The lawsuit was dismissed by lower courts, but the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will hear arguments beginning Thursday in order to determine whether it will take Nguyen’s case.
Gary Pavela, a consultant on law and policy issues in higher education, as well as author of a book surrounding the legality of student suicides, told the AP that if colleges and universities were held responsible for a student’s suicide, it would “be groundbreaking”:
“It would cause alarm in higher education.”
There is no precedent that says higher education institutions have a legal duty to protect students from suicide. Some of the difficulty surrounding the issue, according to Pavela, is that suicide is oftentimes impulsive and not premeditated, making it difficult by nature to prevent.
Other universities, including Harvard and 17 other Massachusetts institutions, believe that imposing liability on higher education institutions might cause school officials and professors who have no training or background in mental health to place too much weight on any kind of red flag, leading students to fear speaking out and seeking help.
Dr. Paul Appelbaum, a psychiatry expert at Columbia University, told the AP:
“To the extent that you heighten every resident assistant’s sensitivity to the risk of suicidality, with the threat of liability hanging over them, they are far more likely to over predict, over intervene, see it where it’s not.”
Suicide is a tragedy that plagues every age group, race, class, and nation. It’s extremely prevalent in the U.S., especially among youths.
A study from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center reports that the suicide rate of students from 18 to 25 years old enrolled in educational programs was between 12 and 15 percent from 1980 to 2009.
According to the AP, MIT did not answer any questions regarding the case. It released a statement that said it “remains committed to the well-being of its students, offering a robust network of support resources, including comprehensive mental health services.”