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On April 18, 2004, George Washington University freshman Hasan Hussain leapt to his death from his fourth-floor dorm balcony. Hussain’s death was the fifth among George Washington students that school year and the second suicide. Counselors, equipped with little more than advice pamphlets, descended on the rattled campus yet again.
The tragedies forced university officials to recast their response to student deaths. An ad hoc panel, the Commission on University Resources and Response to Student Death, was formed to create new programs aimed at minimizing student suicides and at responding effectively in the event of one. Hussain, it was known, had sought help for depression in the days before he killed himself, and his friends thought his death could have been prevented.
Jordan Nott, who lived just down the corridor from Hussain in the Hall on Virginia Avenue, hadn’t seen it coming. Nott and Hussain were close enough to have planned to live together the following school year, but not so close that Hussain had been forthcoming about his depression. The two shared common interests and were becoming good friends. “I had plans to study abroad in Equatorial Guinea, and he looked up all these details about its history,” Nott says. “He wasn’t doing those things just to impress people. He just did them because he was a nice guy.”
After Hussain’s death, Nott pushed through the year with good grades and returned to Syracuse, N.Y., for the summer. There, he reflected on his friend’s death often but with little outward grief. By the start of school in early September, though, things had changed. Nott found that returning to school had unmasked the agony he’d been numb to all summer. Slumping into depression, he decided to visit the University Counseling Center (UCC).
At the UCC, he met with counseling staff members whom he found callous, even icy. When he mentioned to a psychologist that he “was angry about what Hasan had done” and that he “felt guilty for not doing more,” he was simply told, “Normally those feelings go away in two months,” he recalls. Frustrated, he obtained a referral to speak with Dr. Diane DePalma, the UCC’s director. (Neither DePalma nor any official from the university agreed to comment for this story.)
DePalma’s weekly sessions were slightly more effective. To Nott, she seemed more attentive, although still somewhat impersonal. She asked him if he had ever thought about suicide. “Yeah, I guess,” he replied, “but the same way everybody does. I’ve never wanted to do it or made any plans to.”
At the same time, the university was implementing the recommendations the commission had made in its report. Although the administration wanted to keep the report private, the student newspaper, the GW Hatchet, managed to obtain a copy and placed it online. University Media Relations Director Traci Schario noted that the “report wasn’t meant to be publicized.” In part, the commission found the school’s counseling services to be underfunded and recommended identifying “at-risk” students for counseling.
In early October, Nott began experiencing mood swings and insomnia, alarming changes that almost certainly qualified him as at-risk. When he told DePalma, she suggested he see the school psychiatrist, Dr. Joan Barber. With the hope that more sleep would diminish his mood swings, Barber prescribed him Ambien, a common but powerful sleeping drug. After two weeks, when more sleep proved ineffective, they added the antidepressant Zoloft to the regimen.
Each day, Nott was racing through a packed schedule. In addition to school, work, and an internship, he applied for a position on the Colonial Cabinet, a freshman-orientation program for which he suggested creating a session that would educate incoming students about depression and suicide. His suggestion earned him a recommendation from his mentor, Dean of Freshmen Frederic Siegel.
Still, Nott needed a reprieve. “I felt like a zombie or a robot. I wasn’t living much of a life.” To stay rested and refocus on school, he rescheduled his next session with DePalma for Nov. 10, after his midterms.
At 2 a.m. on Oct. 27, Nott took his regular dose of Ambien and sat awake in his F.S. Key Hall dorm, allowing his mind to wander. He looked at his sleeping roommate and reflected on his conversation about suicide with DePalma. “I told her I would want to write letters and do it alone, maybe with pills. And I knew that [my roommate] would be away that weekend,” says Nott.
In a blink, Nott realized that his thoughts were dangerous. “I didn’t want to end up like Hasan.” Hazy from medication, he awoke his roommate and a friend, who walked him to Student Health Services for re-evaluation. When they arrived, he spoke woozily with the admitting doctor—the Ambien had dulled his reactions. He tried telling the doctor what he’d told DePalma: that he had only contemplated suicide passively before that night and that if he ever attempted anything, he would overdose before jumping.
The hospital decided to admit him for a 24-hour observation period. Before he could be admitted, however, he had to sign several waivers, none of which he could understand. “I don’t know what I signed that night,” he says. In fact, as a testament to his incapacity, one of the forms wasn’t really signed but, rather, haphazardly slashed with ink.
Twenty-four hours turned into five days. At the hospital, Nott was prescribed a faster-acting antipsychotic, Risperdal, just as he wanted. During his stay, he was visited by Siegel, he went to group therapy sessions, and he saw five other students pass through.
He also got two letters. The first, dated the day he checked in, informed him of the university’s policy when “psychiatric emergency care occurs for a GW student living in the residence halls.” It said that he “must receive clearance from the Director of the University Counseling Center and the Assistant Dean of Students…prior to returning to the residential community.”
The second letter, just one day later on Oct. 28, came as a great shock. It was from Dean of Students Linda Donnels, and its message was clear: “[Y]ou are hereby suspended from The George Washington University effective immediately.” It went on to charge him with “Endangering Behavior,” specifically jeopardizing the health and safety of anybody, the same rule students break when they fist-fight or actually attempt suicide.
Nott was now barred from university property and events it sponsored and was cautioned that, if seen on campus, he “will be trespassing and may be arrested.”
Other universities don’t treat depressed students quite as harshly. At the University of Maryland, students in residence are allowed to return to their dorms after evaluation, a process that usually takes one day. Counseling officials there recommend medical leaves of absence to the most gravely ill students, but suspensions are never issued.
Assistant Director of Student Judicial Services Michael Gieseke advised Nott to accept his suspension and to return to GW after a medical leave; if he fought the suspension and lost, his transcripts would reflect the appeal. Nott was told about three other students who followed similar advice that year, and was left with the impression that he had little chance of winning if he resisted.
Though he had not planned a suicide, a penalty would be levied regardless, supposedly to help him. “I was being told that volunteering for help was a violation of school policy,” he says. Nott was speechless. He and his mother visited Gieseke and were told that Nott would have gone unpunished if only he’d lived off campus.
What remained unclear was how, within 72 hours, word of the episode had leaked from the university’s counselors to its disciplinary officials. As it turns out, one of the waivers signed by Nott authorized Donnels to access otherwise confidential information that he’d given to the UCC. DePalma later told Nott that she had consulted informally with Donnels.
Shattered, Nott withdrew from school and returned to Syracuse. After completing a successful semester at schools there, he will attend the University of Maryland at College Park in the fall.
Though Nott decided not to return to George Washington as a student, he did hope to return to campus to visit friends. His campus-privileges petition, which included a clean bill of health, work history, and grades, was denied last week.
“One of these days,” he says, “they are going to carry out this policy on a student who is much worse off than I ever was. I fear that student will hurt himself if presented with the same sense of failure that I’ve had to deal with.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Drawing by Robert Meganck.