The family of an MIT sophomore who committed suicide in April 2000 filed a $27 million wrongful-death lawsuit against the university on Monday.
Elizabeth Shin killed herself after a year of receiving mental health treatment from MIT.
The suit initiated by her family this week raises questions about privacy rights and universities’ responsibility to report mental health concerns to parents.
Strict adherence to students’ privacy rights kept MIT officials from alerting the Shin family to Elizabeth Shin’s frequent suicide threats, said Scott Farmelant, senior vice president at Regan Communications, a Boston public relations firm that represents the Shin family.
“Nobody at the university saw fit to give the parents a call to let them know she was repeatedly making suicide threats and harming herself,” Farmelant said.
But in an official statement issued Tuesday, MIT legal cousel Jeffrey Swope ’67 said that Elizabeth Shin’s suicide “was not the fault of MIT or anyone who works at MIT...[Shin] had suffered from serious emotional problems that began at least as early as high school.”
MIT officials yesterday declined comment beyond Tuesday’s official statement.
According to Farmelant, the Shin family wants MIT to “promise” to notify a student’s family in the case of a mental health crisis.
He said Shin’s parents believe MIT had the responsibility to inform them of Shin’s mental health status.
Currently, a federal law protects students’ privacy except in extreme cases, including “emergencies, where health and safety are concerned,” according to the Shin’s lawyer, David DeLuca.
But DeLuca said Shin effectively “waived her right to confidentiality” by repeatedly threatening the possibility of committing suicide to MIT doctors, administrators and her housemaster.
At one point, Shin wrote an e-mail to her instructor Riaz Shiraz Dhanani suggesting suicidal tendencies after receiving the second lowest score on an exam, according to Regan Communications.
“I bought a bottle of sleeping pills and was going to take them all,” Shin wrote in the copy of the December 1999 e-mail to Dhanani provided by Regan Communications.
The lawsuit includes a chronology of Shin’s mental health problems during the biology major’s time at MIT.
According to DeLuca, Shin’s parents believe they were in the “best position physically and emotionally” to help their daughter.
He said Shin’s parents could have forced their daughter to leave school had they known about her worsening mental health—but MIT chose to rely on medical treatment as opposed to disciplinary action.