In April, 18-year-old Carleton university student Nadia Kajouji committed suicide. And last spring, at Virginia Tech, Seung-Hui Cho massacred 32 students before shooting himself. In both cases, school health officials knew these individuals were depressed, and in Cho’s case, knew he was mentally ill, but were prevented by privacy laws from sharing this information. Thus nobody was available to intervene before these two became destructive.
In Kajouji’s case, apparently the teen felt alone after a romantic breakup, and her parents weren’t told how desperate her situation was. If they were, and if they could have gone to Ottawa and surrounded her with love and support, would she still have killed herself? They’ll never know.
I know privacy laws are important. But what has happened now is that the pendulum has swung in the other direction, and those who are in the best position to help a loved one out of a tight spot are excluded from even knowing that person is in trouble.
A friend of mine has a sister suffering from schizophrenia. My friend wants to help, but the doctors won’t share the sister’s diagnosis, her medication, or anything because the sister has not allowed it. So as this woman acts more and more bizarrely, her family can’t intervene. They can’t even contact agencies on her behalf because she will not sign a power of attorney. She still is functioning well enough that no one can override her wishes. Yet who is this really hurting? The sister, who doesn’t realize that her family really loves her.
The same question can be asked about privacy laws when it comes to minors. If a 14-year-old approaches the school nurse or her doctor and asks for birth control, or admits she’s worried that she’s contracted an STD, the parents can’t be told unless she allows it. Don’t those parents, though, deserve to know what is going on in her life? How can they properly parent her if they don’t know something this huge about her? Schools are required to send home report cards so the parents can see their children’s marks, and the parents must sign these report cards to acknowledge that the kids have not confiscated them, but parents can’t be informed about something as big as sexual activity, even though arguably that has more impact than anything else.
At one time physicians or teachers could have made these decisions on their own. They could have looked at the student in front of them, and said, “this girl needs her mother”. A doctor could have counselled a 14-year-old girl with a suspected pregnancy and then decided to tell the parents, because the doctor knows this girl is hanging out with the wrong crowd, and needs to be protected. Or he could have elected not to have informed the parents because he knew the father bordered on abusive. In other words, he could have used his judgment and common sense.
Common sense, though, is one thing we’re not supposed to use anymore. Instead, everything is prescribed by law. And that doesn’t leave enough room for individual circumstances. In fact, it robs us of our humanity.
When doctors, or teachers, or nurses, or others in authority were permitted to use common sense, they were also expected to use common sense. In other words, they were expected to get involved. If there was a danger, they were expected to notify people about it. Today, the system works so that people do the minimum. We give incentives not to get involved; not to care; not to go the extra mile. If you do, you can all too easily be reprimanded.
People once had relationships with professionals, like doctors, or nurses, or teachers, or lawyers. Today the law regulates that relationship so much that it’s more of a transaction than anything else. Our community, and our humanity, are disappearing. I know privacy laws are there for a reason, and I know in many cases they are necessary. But they also have changed the whole nature of how we relate to each other. And for the sake of Nadia, and the teens who will come after her, I’m not sure that’s such a good thing.