University's Handling Of Suicide Examined

Despite a Possible Previous Attempt, Officials Preserved Confidentiality

As residents of Kirkland House mourned the death of Dominic J. Armijo '95, the details of the University's handling of the case began to come to light last week.

Armijo, a native of Boulder, Colo., was found by police in his dorm room shortly after 11 a.m. on January 22.

He was hanged from a pull-up bar in an area of his room described by police sources as "between his bedroom and bathroom."

A government concentrator active in his house and a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps, Armijo was pronounced dead at Cambridge City Hospital about 30 minutes after he was found.

Officials say Armijo may have attempted suicide before.

In December he took a large dose of sleeping pills while at home, said Dr. Randolph Catlin Jr., head of the Mental Health Service at University Health Services (UHS).

A Harvard-affiliated psychiatrist who spoke with Armijo following the December incident did not consider it serious enough to breach Armijo's confidentiality and inform Kirkland House Senior Tutor Garth McCavana about the incident, Catlin said.

"From my understanding, it was not clearly defined as a suicide [attempt], and even if [it] had been, since he was on the road to recovery, it was not appropriate to tell the senior tutor," Catlin said.

McCavana, reached at his office earlier this week, repeatedly refused to comment on the case.

Catlin said defining a suicide attempt is a difficult matter and that the potential ambiguity of the definition might make it less likely that an attempt is reported to officials.

"You tell your patient that every-thing is confidential except some-thing that is potentially seriously harmful," he said.

Experts outside of Harvard's psychiatric community said it is difficult for psychotherapists to determine when a patient's state-mandated confidentiality must be breached.

"Unless they thought that [Armi- jo] was going to go right out and do something,they can't breach confidentiality," said LeahFygetakis, head of Boston University's counselingcenter.

"[UHS] probably knows so much about his lifeand a lot which might allay a lot of concernswhich people have, but...confidentiality goes tothe grave," she added.

According to Fygetakis, Massachusetts state lawdictates that the University provide a reasonablestandard of care for its students.

In other words, even if the decision tomaintain confidentiality was incorrect, mosttherapists would have likely done the same thing.

Nevertheless, Catlin said he told a group ofKirkland House students about Armijo's life as hetried to comfort them at a house meeting on theday of the suicide.

"I tried to tell them about why people commitsuicide," Catlin said. "I tried to tell a littlebit without revealing anything too personal aboutthe individual."

Dealing with Tragedy

Students in Kirkland said that one week afterthe suicide, the mood in the House seems to havereturned to normal. But they added that it isdifficult to gauge the house mood because manystudents were away for intersession.

Catlin urged any students who are troubled bythe incident or are contemplating suicide to callUHS. He said those students will be given highestpriority in receiving attention.

"There is not only sadness and loss, butdisappointment and guilt," Catlin said. "It canmake an individual feel that they should have donesomething about it."

Catlin encourages students who are depressed tothink positively and realize that there ispotential for something meaningful in their lives.

"Each person has to think on their own as towhat's important in their life; what are theyliving for and to look to the positive side ofthings," he said.

Herbert J. Vallier, assistant director of theHarvard police, urged students to contactofficials, either in their Houses or elsewhere inthe University, if they think a friend may becontemplating suicide.

"If it's a proctor or friend, the safest thingto do is taking that risk [to breakconfidentiality]," Vallier said in a telephoneinterview yesterday.

"Call and try to get to one of the detectivesor, if you know of [one], a particular person inthe police department. This raises the whole issueof having liaisons in all of the houses," Valliersaid, referring to a new Harvard police initiativeto put liaisons in the 13 Harvard Houses and thefirst-year dorms.

Armijo's parents could not be reached forcomment at their home in Boulder