Editor’s note: David M. Perry is a journalist, historian, and co-author of The Age of Light: A New History of Medieval Europe. He is the Associate Director for Undergraduate Research in the Department of History at the University of Minnesota.follow him Twitter. The views expressed here are those of the author. See more opinions on CNN. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health issues, call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline on 988 or visit the helpline’s website.
When I was in college in the early 1990s, I received a lot of great instruction on drugs, alcohol, consent, safe sex, and being part of an inclusive community in terms of race and sexual orientation. But the only conversation I can remember about mental health and school was a joke – an urban legend really because it’s neither true nor funny – that if your roommate kills himself then the school will give you straight A’s .
I think we’re doing better today, but also not good enough from a standpoint of caring for our students with mental health disabilities. There are many who agree, and they are taking this argument to court.
That includes the family of Stanford student-athlete Katie Meyer, who allegedly poured hot coffee over another student who allegedly sexually assaulted one of Meyer’s football teammates in August 2021. Six months later, Stanford emailed her notifying her of the impending disciplinary action and detailing the potential consequences. Meyer took her life that night.Alone in her room, Meyer received the email and “suffered[ed] An acute stress reaction impulsively led to her suicide. Stanford disputed the allegations, detailing the support it provided her.
On the other side of the country, a group of current Yale students has filed its own lawsuit, alleging that Yale systematically discriminates against students with mental health disabilities by pressuring students in crisis to take “voluntary” leave and leave school. Check into student housing within 48 hours of developing active symptoms. Yale officials threatened them with involuntary suspension if they did not leave voluntarily, the lawsuit said.
For many students, being off campus separates them from the support networks they may need most during a time of extreme vulnerability. The suit also says expulsion violates civil rights laws that protect students with disabilities. In a letter to the Yale community, the president of Yale noted that 100% of suspended students are reinstated on their third request and that the school is reviewing policy as the school “seeks effective ways to streamline medical withdrawals for students.” And the process of receiving treatment. Rehabilitation.”
I’m always hesitant to take too much from the high notes An anecdote from elite coastal universities; only about 15% of American college students even live on a college campus, and of those who do, most aren’t in places like Yale. Elite universities come from a small segment of American society, and the media tends to generalize campus culture, curriculum, etc. by drawing on anecdotes from elite schools. I’m at a large public university in the middle of the United States. Yale feels so distant from its problems and its $44 billion endowment.
But I have a mental health disorder myself, and I work with college students. I saw the increasing pressure on them and the consequences for them in the classroom. Given what I see every day and what I experience first-hand, I worry that these high-profile stories at Stanford and Yale are just the tip of the iceberg, a small part of a huge problem in higher education. Essentially, while both institutions deny this characterization, schools like Yale are using the fear of the Stanford suicides as a reason to expel students with intellectual disabilities from campus as quickly as possible.
it is driven by stigma, and It may be a fear of taking responsibility. Unless we treat mental health as a disability—that is, a protected category covered by specific civil rights—rather than responding to stigma, it won’t get better. At the same time, every indicator we have shows that the mental health stress on young people is only going to grow due to the pandemic, escalating violence, the climate crisis, and more. We must do everything possible to support people in crisis.
Most people (sadly not everyone) understand that colleges and universities are required by law to be open to students with disabilities and, more importantly, that accessibility is fundamentally good. Blind and deaf students must receive course materials in a form accessible to them. Buildings must have ramps, automatic doors, elevators and accessible bathrooms. The extent and funding of access remains highly contested, both culturally and legally, but more than 30 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, the general principles are fairly widely accepted.
The school does a great job of helping those of us with mental disabilities make learning accessible. For example, many schools provide quiet exam rooms for students with anxiety disorders (like me). But many times, understanding stops at the door of the classroom. Students can still be affected because mental health disorders are not always predictable by definition, and some simply don’t see or occur in academically high-achieving students.
Yale is not an exception when it comes to asking some students who have difficulty leaving campus. A few years ago, the Ruderman Family Foundation (disclosure: I’ve worked for them on some unrelated projects in the past) researched Ivy League schools’ mental health leave policies and found that all of them were too likely to force students with mental illness to Disability stay away, not support them. Stanford changed its policy in 2019 as a result of a lawsuit. Northern Michigan University had to change its policy around “self-destructive behavior” in 2018, moving away from trying to force expulsion based on chat messages about students’ depression and suicide risk (but not actually threatening suicide).
The technology by which students may receive emails from Stanford or send chat messages in Northern Michigan is new, but the policies in question are not. In 1990, Kathy Flaherty, then a student at Harvard Law School, made a casual comment that the resident assistant would jump off the roof if she didn’t “get off her back.” The subsequent attempt to commit her involuntarily to a mental institution, she writes, is what led her to start working in mental health and law, where she is now the executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project.
Flaherty told me that while she doesn’t want to downplay the challenges school administrators face when students are in a mental health crisis, “as someone who experienced a similar forced separation from law schools more than 30 years ago, and as a lawyer who represents the people now lives In the case of mental health conditions, one factor driving the agency’s stance appears to be concerns about potential liability for schools rather than maximizing students’ mental health.”
Monica Porter, a policy and legal advocacy attorney at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, told me that many colleges seem too quick to rule out the mere presence of a mental health disorder, and when what needs to happen (and what she calls legal requirements) is “on a case-by-case basis.” identified threat An individualized assessment based on objective medical evidence and actual risks, not just generalizations and speculation. She offers a wide-ranging list of possible accommodations for students with mental health disabilities, from part-time employment (rather than dropping out entirely) to allowing students to register for classes early so they can choose the time that works best for them and their medication Table (many mental health meds, mine included, have regular drowsiness at times when it’s best not to be in class).
It’s not that universities can’t act when faced with evidence of threats to others or themselves, but there must be actual evidence, and responses must be individualized. As with any disability, seeking reasonable accommodation is the first step.
The good news is that there are solutions. In fact, the Rudman Foundation partnered with Boston University to launch a toolkit for students who want to change university policy. Jay Ruderman (President of the Foundation) told me that through student-led discussions, real change can start on an institution-by-institution basis. And that’s good because the bad news is that with the Covid generation coming to campus and students’ entire high school experience being marred by a continuing global mass death event, the day-to-day stress of college life is only going to get worse .
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health issues, call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline on 988, or visit the helpline website.