Four students sit at desks, one rests their head on their desk and the others rest their heads in their hands.

Students With Mental Health Disabilities Are Not a Burden

Halfway through my time in college, I found myself wondering whether I should bother returning to therapy, either on or off-campus. Despite having studied psychology for a few years and having previously seen a therapist on campus, I felt apprehensive about seeking out counseling services once more.

Would my professors be receptive to my mental health concerns?

Would administrative staff be alarmed by me dealing with depression, anxiety, and violent thoughts of self-harm and see me as a threat to others?

Would fellow students see me as a potential threat?

All of these thoughts ran through my head as I struggled to keep myself afloat amidst the microaggressions, and general stresses of living on a prestigious university campus. That is, until the institutionalization happened.

You see, halfway through my college years the student population was forced to live through a dreadful incident where a student was forcibly placed on psychiatric hold per the suggestion of our college’s administrative personnel. The student was cited as a “threat to self and others” and deemed unfit to return and live on campus, despite needing to finish classes and lacking any alternative housing due to uneasy family relations. As much as the university had previously recommended both its counseling services and for students to get help during mental health crises, this incident flew entirely in the face of those statements. Not only had the student been forcibly removed against her will from campus but she now faced being deprived of her main sources of on-campus support because she was deemed a liability.

Having been involved in the backlash following the incident, I found myself consumed with a new set of worries:

How many of us currently dealing with mental health issues would be placed on hold next if we went public with our concerns?

How many of us who had gone on a “leave of absence” were going to return and be deemed fit to study on campus again?

And finally, was this the only response we could expect from the administration for reacting so strongly to a stressful campus climate?

As paranoid as these concerns felt at the time, recent administrative actions taken by US universities indicate these worries were not ill-founded. Despite the fact that there has been a substantial increase in college students facing mental health issues (and accompanying concerns such as self-injurious behavior and suicidal thoughts), universities are not keeping up. While the past decade has seen an increase in student populations seeking counseling and associated psychiatric services, universities are not devoting a similar increase in resources dedicated to providing such services. Worse yet, college administrations have begun enacting a different course of action for students with mental health issues that is setting a dangerous precedent for higher education: mandatory leaves of absence.

Whether the context is Stanford University revoking housing for a student attempting to commit suicide in 2013, Quinnipiac University placing a student on medical leave for seeking counseling for depression, or any number of UK universities adopting “unfit to study” provisions to remove students from campus, mandatory leave is becoming the go-to for handling mental health in university settings. Rather than addressing the issues students face on campus or considering additional resources needed for disability concerns, universities are instead treating students with mental health disabilities as problems to be expediently dealt with. In essence, students are being placed in direct opposition to the interests of university administrations and deemed unfit as potential future academics.

Looking past the various violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the stigmatizing effect such an approach has on future students seeking counseling resources , I can’t help but feel this recent trend towards enforcing mandatory leave is a self-defeating one. For all the claims these prestigious universities make to attract the best and brightest students, removing a substantial portion of the population who may go on to influence several academic fields simply because they cannot handle the stresses of campus life seems unfair at best and ableist to the core. Students have a variety of needs and a uniform approach to each one’s concerns (academic, mental health, or otherwise) does not make for a practical strategy.

Furthermore, given how much more diverse college student populations are and will be in the future, the use of mandatory leave policies for those with mental health issues reeks of a classist, discriminatory approach that cements the most privileged as deserving mental healthcare. If only those who can perform able-mindedness correctly will be allowed a space in universities without the risk of administrative violence, who in fact are universities affirming as worthy of being an academic with a disabilit(y)ies?

I have a shred of sympathy for universities and the staggering load of cases they face with more students presenting with mental health issues. Without proper funding, universities will struggle to keep up with the various needs students have, particularly if those students have never sought counseling before. However, treating students as a burden to deal with is not the way to handle inadequate resources. Neither is denying responsibility for the structural factors which the university itself encourages (such as ignoring microaggressions and toxic academic standards) that prompt mental health problems in the first place. It does a disservice to the university and a larger injustice to the students as a result.

It has been years since I feared what my administration would do to me if I sought counseling for my several mental health disabilities. In the years since I have worried about what harm has befallen those like me who didn’t seek counseling for fear of removal from campus, institutionalization, or other administrative violence. I can only hope that should higher education change its approach to enforcing mandatory leave, it will be for the betterment of the students. Otherwise, we are going to carry on with a culture of fear regarding mental health that will make higher education all but impossible for those with mental health disabilities to live through.

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