What It's Really Like to Experience Involuntary Withdrawal From College Because of Mental Illness

This week, I read this article published by Spoon University, and I was deeply moved to write a response. This article from Nikki Daurio, a Harvard student, tackles similar issues with extensive research and thoughtfulness, and is also well worth the read. The former piece discusses the harmful effects on medical, and specifically mental health related, involuntary withdrawals on college campuses. Involuntary medical withdrawals can range from forced withdrawals from classes to complete removal from campus. They most often occur when the school feels that the student poses a safety risk to themselves, or when the administration feels that they don’t have sufficient resources to support a student. This is probably one of the hardest articles I’ve ever written, but I think all students should learn about this issue because mental health resources on campus are a vital resource. I firmly believe that there are positives and negatives to involuntary withdrawal policies, and I believe that the topic requires a more nuanced portrayal than the one in the above article.

You see, this happened to me. This happened to my friends. It was one of the worst moments of my life, during the worst time in my life. It is so hard to talk about this, but I believe in the importance of owning your story, and this is part of my story. I joke about it, about how I “got kicked out of school” or “dropped out” and people laugh because they don’t know the reality of it. I talk about taking a gap year, about my complicated status as both a sophomore and a junior. I was four weeks away from being a junior, and I lost those prior eight weeks of work. I pretend that it was my choice, but the reality is a tangled web of decisions from my dean, my therapist, my doctor and myself. Being told I had to call my parents and have them take me off campus and that I wasn’t allowed to be alone in the interim was one of the worst eight hours of my life. I wanted to stay on campus, I wanted to stay in Vermont, I didn’t want to involve my family. But I had no choice but to leave. My intimate experience with this allows me to see the positive and negative effects of involuntary withdrawals, in a way that I couldn’t while it was happening.

If I look back nine months to April 19, my last day as a Middlebury student, I know that I would never believe it if someone told me that in the future I would be grateful for what Middlebury did to me. At the time, I felt betrayed by the place I loved, by my dean and therapist whom I felt broke the confidence I had put in them. But as I sit here today, I know that they made that decision to keep me safe. I don’t know what would have happened if I stayed on campus, but I know that I may not have been here today if I had stayed. The administrators made the decision they did to keep me safe. They didn’t allow me to return to finish the semester to keep me safe. I know it was a hard decision for them, that they hated doing it, but they were doing everything in their power to keep me safe. And I am grateful for that. If the administrators make the decision to have you leave campus, they are doing it because it is likely the best thing for you. That is hard to accept, but it is the hard truth.

On the other hand, there are several negatives to these policies. One of the biggest consequences is that students are terrified of being forced to withdraw. They are scared that if they go to the health center and are honest about what they’re going through, that they’ll immediately be removed from campus. First off, this is rarely true. Administrators only make this difficult decision if you have shown that you are a serious danger to your health and safety. They want to keep you on campus, and they will only remove you if it is absolutely the only choice. It is a last resort. Secondly, the frightening consequence of this is that students refuse to get help because they are afraid of this. This wariness to ask for help is dangerous. Without proper support, issues can escalate and become much more dangerous than if an individual is receiving proper treatment. If there is one thing I ask of you, it’s this: Don’t let fear keep you from getting the help you need. I have seen the consequences of refusing help, have been affected by suicide, and I can’t watch that happen again. Don’t ever tell yourself that you’re not sick enough, that people are worse off than you, that your emotions aren’t valid — you deserve help no matter what. The third aspect that frightens people about this process is horror stories of students not being readmitted to the college. We’ve all heard these stories of students whose petitions for readmission have been denied, and that was a huge fear factor for me after I left school. I know people that it has happened to. It happened to me. But, again, I don’t think that’s a reason not to get help. In order to be allowed back on campus, that’s often what you need — to have gotten the help you needed. I don’t think there are any excuses not to get help. And you have to be honest. They’ll have difficulty treating you effectively if you’re not giving them 100 percent honesty. And I don’t think it’s worth going to treatment if you’re not going to fully commit to it.

Another negative consequence of involuntary withdrawals is that often school is a person’s lifeline. For me, school and the friends and relationships I had there were my biggest reasons to fight my battle. After losing school, a job related to school and the support systems administratively, mental health and friend wise, I felt lower than ever. Without school and everything that came along with it, I didn’t feel like I had a reason to live anymore. This is a dangerous consequence of forcing students to leave campus. Students are separated from the mental health resources that have been supporting them and the support systems they’ve built there. Sometimes, it is hard for students to access health resources off campus, so then they’re stuck in a worse position than they were when they were on campus.

I hope that this explanation provided a multi-layered look at the positive and negative consequences of involuntary medical withdrawals. This is an extremely difficult topic to handle, but I believe it is truly vital to talk about. I want to dispel the misconceptions about it, but also teach administrators how to best handle it and how to combat the negative effects of it. My involuntary medical withdrawal from Middlebury changed my life forever, for better and for worse, and I want people to understand that it’s not the end of the world. I don’t know if I would have transferred without this push, and I am grateful for that. I am grateful for what I learned about myself in my time off (I had to take fall semester off too). Life keeps going, and so can you. And one last time, I implore you, get the help you need.

This piece was originally published on The Odyssey

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

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