South Carolina

Lawsuit: Father charges USC with negligence in graduate student’s death

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The father of a graduate student who killed herself after visiting a University of South Carolina mental health counselor has filed suit against the university for its “grossly negligent” treatment of his daughter.

Samantha Strawn, a 22-year-old student in USC’s Darla Moore School of Business, exhibited numerous signs that she was going to kill herself. However, a USC mental health counselor heard her out and sent her on her way with only a follow-up appointment, the lawsuit alleges.

“Samantha found herself in a crisis situation” and the university’s “negligence” allowed her to carry out plans to end her life, the lawsuit alleges. The suit was filed by Daniel Strawn, Samantha’s father, in Richland County Circuit Court.

In its answer, the university denies negligence, saying its care of Samantha Strawn met medical standards and her suicide “was a consequence of her voluntary acts.”

A USC spokesman declined comment on the lawsuit.

However, spokesman Jeff Stensland said USC has made “significant investments” to make help available to students in recent years, including a 24/7 hotline for students in crisis. The university’s Health Services Counseling and Psychiatry Department also has walk-in hours available to students who need help, he said.

“We will continue to seek new ways to enhance the well-being of our campus and address the problem of mental illness among our student population ... (and) faculty and staff,” Stensland said. “Suicide is a tragedy for the campus community.”

When she died on Oct. 29, 2016, Strawn was working toward a master’s degree in human resources and entertaining offers to intern with Boeing and Textron, her obituary said. A graduate of Western Kentucky University, she loved music, dance, books, history, the outdoors and had spent part of her college career studying abroad in Peru.

“Samantha will live on in our memories as a very sweet, bright, caring, jubilant, bubbly, good girl who was always kind hearted,” her obituary said. “Endlessly witty, she could always bring a smile to our faces.”

When Strawn visited USC’s counseling center on Oct. 18, 2016, she told a counselor that she had a “strong desire, wish or intent to kill herself,” wanting to be free of worries about failing school and her personal life, the lawsuit says.

She told the counselor she had been depressed for two weeks, crying constantly and drinking heavily. She also said she had visited a place in Columbia where she might kill herself and had bought equipment to help her end her life, the lawsuit said.

Here are some tips when calling 911 if someone you know is in crisis and is a danger to themselves or others.

Despite those signs, the counselor “decided not to admit Samantha to a safe and secure mental facility, nor to contact her father, who is noted in the records as her favorite person and with whom she enjoyed a positive relationship,” the lawsuit alleges.

The counselor wrote Strawn’s “crisis situation was manageable” and scheduled a follow-up appointment a week later, on Oct. 25, 2016. On that follow-up visit, the counselor’s notes say Strawn showed “no desire to commit suicide,” the lawsuit says.

But four days later, on Oct. 29, 2016, Strawn took her own life.

Although Strawn’s second visit indicated she was better, her symptoms on her first visit warranted immediate intervention, the lawsuit alleges, adding failing to intervene caused her death.

Suicide and depression are recognized threats to many students on college campuses, according to mental health specialists. However, suicide often can be prevented, those experts say.

People contemplating killing themselves often exhibit warning signs, including behavior and mood changes, isolating themselves from friends and family, saying they feel trapped and without hope, the experts say. Or they might buy a gun, having never owned one before.

“A person can be overwhelmed at a point in time beyond their abilityto cope. But if you can give time and distance from the means of ending their life, you can save a life,” said Helen Pridgen, director of the S.C. Area Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She added persons threatening to kill themselves should not be left alone..

“A person can be in a suicide crisis like they can be in any other kind of medical crisis,” Pridgen said. “It’s not that they want to die — it’s that they want the pain they are in to stop.”

In South Carolina, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for young people, ages 15 to 34, according to the most recent data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, staffed 24/7, is (800) 273-8255.

John Monk has covered courts, crime, politics, public corruption, the environment and other issues in the Carolinas for more than 40 years. A U.S. Army veteran who covered the 1989 American invasion of Panama, Monk is a former Washington correspondent for The Charlotte Observer. He has covered numerous death penalty trials, including that of the Charleston church killer, Dylann Roof.
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