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University Leave of Absence Policies Need Reform. Active Minds Is Here to Help.

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Over the last couple of decades, campuses have made great strides in accommodating students when they want to take a leave of absence from their home campuses. Some people study abroad. Others take time off to tour with their band or take care of a sick loved one. Others have medical issues they need to take care of or leave to have and take care of a newborn baby. And for the most part, these students can expect that when they’re ready to come back, their spot will be waiting for them.

Unfortunately, students with mental health disorders don’t always have the same experience.

Since the tragedy at Virginia Tech in 2007, campuses have become far more cautious in dealing with students with mental health issues. As a result, even when students choose on their own to take a leave of absence to work on their mental health, they’re sometimes met with hesitancy, skepticism, additional requirements and on some campuses, a higher likelihood of having their re-enrollment denied. The fear is perhaps any student with depression could be the next perpetrator of mass violence.

However, that’s just not how the statistics play out. Most people who struggle with their mental health aren’t going to be violent. In fact, they’re more likely to be victims of violence. But as a former student affairs professional myself, I know fear can be a really strong force when you care about the students you’re working with every day. Sometimes the seeds of stigma and discrimination around mental illness win over our fearful brains. This is understandable, but at the end of the day these extra requirements and higher levels of scrutiny aren’t only unfair, but can be unlawful.

The Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act protect all students with disabilities — including psychological disabilities. Reasonable accommodations must be offered to students unless they cause an undue burden to the university or significantly alter the educational program. Reasonable accommodations for students with mental health disabilities may include (but are not limited to) more time on tests, an alternate testing site or allowing a reduced course load or increased time to finish degree requirements.

In keeping with this last accommodation, students need to be allowed to step away from their studies to work on their mental health. After all, the age of onset of most mental health disorders is between 16 and 25 (which aligns with traditionally-aged college students). Non-traditional students may face mental health triggers in the form of social alienation, work-life balance and transition difficulties that can impact their work. So, like pregnant students, these students may need to step away for a bit and then step back in when they’re ready.

Since Virginia Tech, in defiance of the ADA’s equal coverage of physical and psychological disabilities, many schools have imposed additional restrictions and requirements for students taking a leave of absence for mental health reasons. Students may be required to stay off campus for a prescribed minimum amount of time, release private treatment records, be assessed by a university-affiliated psychologist for fitness to return or write a personal essay and prove they’ve held down volunteer work or a part-time job while they were away.

These additional restrictions are unlawful. But other policies are just confusing. In my research I found at many universities, there’s a different leave of absence policy for every school, college or department within it. The policies are hard to find, written generally, lack emphasis on the needs of individual students and do not properly outline all the steps (and office visits and paperwork) necessary for processing the leave. For someone with depression or social anxiety, wading through an opaque policy and bureaucracy can be overwhelming.

And then there are involuntary leaves of absence.

You’ve heard of these. It’s when a student seeks help for suicidal ideation or an attempt, is immediately hospitalized and before they’re even discharged from the hospital is served with notice they’ve been put on a leave of absence for up to two semesters, are required to seek professional treatment if they ever wish to re-enroll and have a limited time to get everything out of their residence hall room.

Here’s the thing about an involuntary leave of absence. Unless someone is a direct threat to someone else, has a plan and the means to execute it, then putting them on a leave of absence without their consent puts the cart before the horse. Not only is it not helpful to the student and their mental health, but it discourages other students from seeking help when they are struggling, too. What’s more, if a school doesn’t provide due process—like a hearing where a student can explain their circumstances and why it isn’t in their best interest to leave—then, they’re not acting lawfully, either.

Obviously, this student leave of absence issue is extremely complex and that’s why Active Minds has your back. We heard from so many students about how much they’d like to push for changes to their leaves of absence policies. That’s why we’ve created Transform Your Leave of Absence, a featured campaign of our Transform Your Campus advocacy program. On our website, you can find diagnostic tools to help you determine whether your school’s policies need work (and how much). You can check out our resources and tips to help you advocate for more equitable and compassionate policies for all–including how to work with administrators to make sustainable change.

I had a severe eating disorder that came to a head during my senior year of college in 2005, (pre-Virginia Tech). The Dean of Students, my advisors and my parents were able to work together to process my leave of absence in short order while I was in the hospital and more than that, I was able to stay connected to my classes while I was in inpatient treatment. I returned to campus a few weeks later, to a network of people — including a psychiatrist, therapist and nutritionist — who welcomed me back, caught me up and helped me graduate on time. Their response was as individualized as it was compassionate.

It was clear to them — as it was to me — that being able to get back to my daily life and graduate with my friends were critical to the success of my treatment. That’s why I will always be incredibly grateful to my alma mater.

You can make sure future students are lucky, too. Check out our resources here and sign up for Transform Your Campus. Once you unlock the resources, you’ll be able to browse all of our featured campaigns as well as many other resources that will support you as you seek to trade campus controversy for compassion.

Are you interested in learning more about the leave of absence policies on your campus and how they could be improved? Check out the Transform Your Campus Leave of Absence Campaign!

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 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via moodboard.

Originally published: March 7, 2017
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