Less than an hour after leaving a session with his Allegheny College counselor Feb. 11, 2002, Charles Mahoney IV visited a suicide-related Web site on the computer in his room.
Several hours later, the 20-year-old college junior, who once was a quarterback on the college’s football team and an honor student, used his dog’s leash to hang himself.
Did his counselor Jacquelyn Kondrot miss the signs and not take the proper action to get him immediate help to prevent his suicide that day? Or did something happen to Mahoney after he left his session that made him decide to take his own life?
That is the question a jury of six men and six women will decide this week when they begin deliberations in the civil suit being heard in Crawford County Court of Common Pleas.
Mahoney’s parents, Deborah and Charles Mahoney III, filed a lawsuit after the death of their son against Allegheny College; Kondrot, who was their son’s counselor at the center; and Dr. Gregory Richards, a local psychiatrist. The Mahoneys allege negligence, saying those parties should have recognized warning signs and arranged for proper care for their son, and that they should have been notified when he was deemed “high risk” for suicide.
According to testimony Tuesday, Mahoney had never visited a suicide-related Web site before.
The defense attorneys for the college and Kondrot rested their case early Tuesday afternoon after jurors heard four hours of testimony from an award-winning psychiatrist, Dr. Morton Silverman.
Silverman is a medical adviser to the Jed Foundation, established to help prevent suicide, and is considered an expert in suicide prevention circles.
He told jurors a 10-year study of colleges show although some people may consider the suicide rate for college-age students high, it is 50 percent lower than the national average for that age category.
“Ten percent of college students have seriously considered suicide in the past,” said Silverman, testifying on behalf of the college and Kondrot. One thousand college students commit suicide every year.
Mahoney’s is the only suicide recorded at Allegheny as long as records are available. The college has 1,850 students, and 296 used counseling services at the center last year.
Silverman said the college exceeds the guidelines for ratio of counselors per students, and that was also the case in 2002 when Mahoney died.
Noting the increased amount of counseling required for students, Silverman said some colleges have started requiring co-payments for students using those services. All of Allegheny’s services are at no additional charge to the students.
“Colleges are not therapeutic communities,” he said. “They are not to provide services to mentally ill individuals; they are to provide education.”
He testified in his expert opinion after reviewing all the records in the case, Kondrot “acted properly when she assessed Chuck Mahoney” the day he died.
Noting the two-and-one-half-year relationship that Mahoney had with Kondrot, he said a level of comfort and trust had been built, including a “language of communication, verbal and non-verbal gestures, and code words.”
He said Mahoney showed no signs he was “actively suicidal” that day, referring to the risk of an immediate suicide attempt. Reviewing an e-mail received by Kondrot that Mahoney had written about nine hours before the meeting, Silverman pointed out Mahoney’s notes on dates for the future as indications he was still thinking of the future.
Asked whether Kondrot should have broken the confidentiality when she received the e-mail, he said no.
Asked if records show that on two occasions Kondrot had considered calling the parents, or initiating voluntary or involuntary hospitalization or a leave of absence from school, Silverman agreed that was true.
But he supported Kondrot’s decision — based on the records he reviewed. He said keeping confidentiality is vital in treating patients, and Mahoney hadn’t met the criteria of being in imminent threat of hurting himself or others — as required by state law to override a patient’s objection to notifying somebody else.
Testimony was that Mahoney rejected Kondrot’s suggestion for voluntary hospitalization and to notify his parents of his deteriorating mental condition.
Silverman said despite the fact Kondrot didn’t have a doctorate degree, she was “quite well-prepared and an experienced clinician.” Testimony was Kondrot has completed advance courses toward her doctorate degree, but just hasn’t done the final research paper required.
Other testimony on Tuesday included reading of depositions of questioning of another psychiatrist from Pittsburgh, who had treated Mahoney in the summer of 2000.
That testimony showed various types of medications had been prescribed for Mahoney, but he hadn’t always taken them as directed. In addition, he had been using alcohol despite the fact he was told not to when taking the medication.
In a deposition from his sister, Kelly, she said her brother told her he wanted to be a lawyer and become a child advocate. Kelly, who had mental health issues and had attempted suicide in the past, testified that she and her brother had made a pact: Should either of them feel like they were going to attempt suicide, they would call the other. “We would be each other’s lifeline,” she said.
For whatever reason, however, there was no evidence Mahoney had made that call to his sister — or to anyone else that afternoon — when he returned to his room and killed himself, leaving only a suicide note on the dresser.
Attorney Joel Snavely, representing Richards, will present his case on behalf of his client today.
Jane Smith can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at email@example.com