Cornell University has made the controversial decision that a human life is worth more than strict privacy rules. As a result, it has cut its suicide rate amongst students in half in the past 6 years (as compared to the previous 6 years when this policy wasn’t in place).

At the same time while undergraduate enrollment at Cornell has declined during most of the 2000’s, visits to the school’s counseling center have nearly doubled, from just over 11,000 in 2000 to nearly 20,000 in 2007. This may also help account for the reduction in the suicide rate.

Students are making more use of the counseling services available to them, and staff at Cornell are keeping a closer eye on students who seem to experiencing extreme emotional difficulties:

After years in which many colleges have said privacy rules prevent them from interceding with troubled students, Cornell is taking the opposite tack.

Its “alert team” of administrators, campus police and counselors meets weekly to compare notes on signs of student emotional problems. People across campus, from librarians to handymen, are trained to recognize potentially dangerous behavior. And starting this year, Cornell is taking advantage of a rarely used legal exception to student-privacy rights: It is assuming students are dependents of their parents, allowing the school to inform parents of concerns without students’ permission.

While I am somewhat conflicted about this policy, I applaud Cornell University and its counseling staff for erring on the side of safety rather than privacy. It’s hard to argue with solid data and results illustrating that as people become more educated about mental health and emotional warning signs, they can try and reach out to troubled students before it’s too late.

Young adulthood is a special time within our emotional and social development. We take the personalities we’ve been building in high school and in close-knit social circles and expand upon them in more serious friendships and relationships. It can be a very emotionally-trying time for many. And because as young adults, we may not yet have an arsenal of reliable, useful coping skills, a person may be taxed beyond their emotional means.

Cornell is taking the informed, networked, information-sharing-is-best approach that can best monitor students’ emotional health needs, without being truly intrusive. They ask more questions about a student’s mental health status even at regular health exams, and keep on the lookout for students that seem to be experiencing especially difficult times. It’s an approach that, while not perfect, I hope many other schools choose to follow as they reassess their mental health strategies in the wake of last year’s Virginia Tech massacre.

The Wall Street Journal has the full article, Bucking Privacy Concerns, Cornell Acts as Watchdog.