For college students struggling with mental illness, the social and academic pressures associated with being on campus often exacerbate the psychological distress. This can lead to a tipping point in which stepping back from such a stressful environment fora while is sometimes very much needed for recovery. In more extreme cases, education must be disrupted for the sake of a long-term inpatient hospitalization; and in milder cases simply going back home and getting support from family members helps in finding one’s emotional balance and inner tranquility.
A mental health leave might feel like a relief, but it is not all rosy. Taking a break from school can trigger a sense of isolation and lowered self-esteem; while coming back from a leave turns into a painful and bureaucratically complex procedure. Many students complain about lack of transparency in procedures for taking a voluntary leave of absence and about troublesome return policies that do not secure guaranteed housing and require clearance and interviews far in advance of the semester start date. Yet, it is the forced, involuntary leave that appears to be the most problematic.
While it is reasonable for universities to prioritize the safety of the general student body, the members of the administration might overuse security concerns to unfairly force mentally ill students to withdraw from school and leave campus. Such a tendency can be exemplified by the Stanford office of Student Affairs that claims the right to put students on a mandatory leave if their actions due to a psychiatric condition pose a threat to “safety of self or others,” or “significantly disrupt the activities of the university community.” We must keep in mind that both public and private institutions of higher education are obliged to act in accordance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). ADA prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, including those related to mental health conditions; and regulates the conduct when behavior resulting from a disability poses a direct threat to the health or safety of others. Meanwhile, many universities developed policies that use “community disruption” as a justification for an involuntary leave of absence, claiming that expression of suicidal thoughts or a need for additional services and resources are disruptive for proper functioning of student population and campus operations.
Such policies ignore a legal obligation to provide accommodations such as extensions, incompletes, or reduced course loads; and go against the ADA law as behaviors that don’t pose a direct threat to the safety of others should not result in exclusion from campus community. A history of self-harm or suicidal ideation cannot be considered sufficient justifications for an involuntarily leave either, as direct threat is strictly defined as a “a significant risk to the health or safety of others that cannot be eliminated by a modification of policies, practices or procedures, or by the provision of auxiliary aids or service” so that a student cannot be placed on leave just because they pose a risk to themselves.
Past and present legal cases demonstrate that the mental health leave of absence has been turned into a discriminatory practice numerous times. A Hunter College student referred to as “Jane Doe” filed a suit against CUNY when after a suicide attempt and a period of inpatient treatment she was deprived of physical access to her dorm room and removed from university. Similarly, when Denise Ramirez from BrownUniversity got discharged from a hospital where she stayed because of severe panic attacks and thoughts of self-harm, she was quickly notified that she could not go back to school, had to pack overnight and would not be allowed on her own campus anymore. Dave, another Brown student, was placed on a temporary leave first but then was denied enrollment five times while fighting to be readmitted. A student publicly known as W.P. sued Princeton after the school denied him accommodations, “banned him from attending classes,” “prohibited him from setting foot on campus” and ultimately threatened that “If he did not ‘voluntarily’ withdraw he would be involuntarily withdrawn in approximately three weeks for failing to attend the classes.” This story is similar to that of a former Yale College student known as Z.P., as reported by the The Yale Daily News . Z.P. filed a lawsuit in a New Jersey federal court after she was unlawfully hospitalized for treatment of depression and her medical information was disclosed to Yale administrators, resulting in Z.P. being placed on an involuntarily medical leave. Students at Stanford joined forces and recently filed a class action lawsuit against the university. According to the Dean of Student’s Leave of Absence policy, Stanford may place a student on a mandatory leave if a person “presents a substantial risk of harm to self,”“significantly disrupts the educational or other activities of the University,”“is unable or unwilling to carry out substantial self-care obligations or to participate meaningfully in educational activities” or “requires a level of care from the university community that exceeds the resources and staffing that the university can reasonably be expected to provide for a student’s well-being.” Such practices clearly violate state and federal anti-discrimination laws. The ulterior motives behind mental health leave policies seem a little fishy, as if the universities perceive mentally ill and suicidal students as taking away from the purity of their institutions and therefore focus on protecting the public image or avoiding liability rather than really helping students to get healthier.
A list of such shocking cases sadly goes on and on. “The Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health in the Ivy League” systematically evaluated and graded the mental health leave policies individually and the results are quite shocking, showing that none of the Ivies deserves a grade better than a D+. Half of theIvy League schools socially isolate the students by not allowing them to enter the campus area while on leave, and the same proportion of schools do not put any significant efforts in creating accommodations that would make the leave unnecessary in the first place. Given discrimination and draconian measures such as mandatory leave of absence, the fear of stigma surrounding mental illness becomes completely justified. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that students experiencing crisis hesitate to disclose to their friends and fail to seek professional psychological or psychiatric help. Over the recent years, many campuses have significantly improved the mental health awareness and the quality of psychological services, but formalizing and standardizing leave of absence policies has been ignored. The mental health leave policies definitely require are form nationwide. If you personally feel like your rights under theAmericans With Disabilities Act have been violated by a higher education institution or you need external support and guidance in advocating for restructuring of the leave of absence policy in your college, visit the websites provided below!
- Fountain House College Re-Entry Program, https://collegereentry.org
- The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, http://www.bazelon.org/contact-us/
- Active Minds Leave of Absence Campaign, https://www.activeminds.org/programs/transform-your-campus/leave-of-absence-campaign/