Virginia aims to prevent suicide

Legislators in Virginia have passed two new bills designed to reduce suicide rates among college students. The first of these would require Virginia colleges’ administrators to inform a student’s parents if the student is exhibiting “suicidal tendencies.” The second would require schools to report the same information to a team of campus experts.

Both bills must proceed through the remainder of the legislative process before they can become laws.

Virginia is widely considered a national leader in college suicide prevention. Its laws already require schools to contact parents whose students demonstrate a “substantial likelihood” of suicide. One of the bills under consideration would add a new layer by requiring schools to act, even if the report is conveyed by teachers, friends and other mental health non-professionals.

Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among college students, according to the University of Minnesota’s Office for Student Affairs. For this reason, we understand and support the motivation behind the new Virginia bills.

However, “suicidal tendencies” is a vague enough term to allow schools a substantial degree of interpretative flexibility, and thus render the duty to report essentially useless. This is especially damaging when combined with the provision that would accept the testimonies of non-mental health professionals as binding.

Ultimately, we worry that the bills’ vague language and broad terms may discourage some students from seeking the help they need and set an unhelpful precedent for similar suicide-prevention efforts in other states.