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What No One Tells You About Medical Leave In College

I had to fight to return to school after battling mental illness and I'm not alone

One, two, three, four. I counted the Prozac as each pill slid down my throat, methodically swallowing them. 18, 19, 20. Snap! I came out of my trance.

It was a Friday night, and I was feeling cold, lonely, and bored. My schoolwork was demanding, my friendships felt artificial, and my college experience at Dartmouth wasn’t living up to my expectations. The last straw on which my delicate frame of mind rested broke after a boy I liked rejected me. I was so utterly sick of everything, including my life. In that moment I didn’t mind going to sleep and never waking up.

Yet I texted a friend immediately afterward, telling him to come to my dorm. I ran into his arms and started crying as soon as he arrived. In a surprisingly calm voice, I told him about swallowing all those pills and trying to kill myself. We stood in the hallway for a while, my arms wrapped around him. It was nice to feel the warmth of another human radiating onto my skin, and I wanted that moment to last forever. I guess I didn’t want to die after all.

He held me closely as we walked to the infirmary, as if I would slip through his arms and disappear into the ether at any moment. Once there I found myself unable to talk, so my friend had to tell the nurse what happened. A strange look came over her face. It was one that I’d internalize over the next few days, one that branded the word “suicidal” on my forehead. She called an ambulance, which whisked me away to a local hospital.

I spent the night in a stiff bed, the heavy burden of my actions weighing on my chest. The next day I vomited until my eyes welled with tears — maybe from my violent convulsions or maybe from the threat of being placed in a psychiatric ward. After pleading with my doctor and promising not to hurt myself, he decided that I could return to the school’s infirmary. Finally, I thought, it’s over. Little did I know my long, excruciating ordeal had just begun.

My mental health has always been fragile, a beast lying dormant that could wake up any time and ruin my life. Just last year I had had a complete breakdown that resulted in me being placed in an intensive outpatient program. Earlier in the school year, I’d gone to the infirmary after cutting myself and having suicidal thoughts. I had expected that my transition to college would be difficult, but I was wholly unprepared for the reality of it. The stress of succeeding academically and building relationships was just too much, and I found myself shutting down. In those moments, I went down to the school’s hospital to get some relief. I began to view it as a haven in times of crisis, a second home, a place where I could rest whenever I became overwhelmed.

But when I was told I wouldn’t be able to leave the school’s infirmary, even with supervision, this once-comforting space morphed into a prison. I was forced to stay put and wander around the cold, barren building. I spent most of my time rotting away in my room, which was little more than a glorified cell. My loneliness began to erode my spirit, and once again I felt myself sinking into a dark pit of depression. Even now I feel sick when I imagine the black-and-white checkerboard pattern of the floor.

After three days my mother arrived on campus. I was relieved to finally leave that jail with her by my side. This comfort, however, was short-lived: I soon learned the physicians at the infirmary wanted me to take a medical leave. While my leave was initially only recommended, I was told it could potentially become involuntary, which would have “implications” for my record.

My mother and I were absolutely against this leave. Although I had struggled considerably when I entered college, I felt as though I had come too far to simply turn back or give up. I preferred to explore other, less drastic options rather than leave campus, especially considering that other students’ experiences have shown how detrimental forced medical leaves can be.

Take, for instance, one student’s recent battle with Brown University. After a failed suicide attempt, “Dave” was placed on a (supposedly) temporary leave, but ended up spending nearly two years trying to reenroll. He was repeatedly denied readmission (five times to be exact), despite throwing himself into his recovery. Dave contacted the university over and over again, trying to get answers, wondering what else he could do to improve the situation. At one point he even wrote an email to the administration saying, “My education has been delayed three years for no medical reason. Really, no sympathy?”

In another case strikingly similar to my own (down to the number of pills he swallowed), a Princeton student known only as W.P. was coaxed into a voluntary medical leave. Anything else, he was also told, would have consequences for his transcript. During an interview with Rachel Aviv for The New Yorker, W.P.’s lawyer, Julia Graff, mentioned that “universities don’t seem to understand that mental-health disabilities are chronic illnesses, and it is not uncommon to have to be briefly hospitalized now and again. It doesn’t mean that you are not competent to be a student.”

Like Dave, W.P. asked the college to provide accommodations before leaving, but they denied his requests. This experience was traumatic, making him feel “extreme embarrassment, stress, emotional pain and mental anguish, as well as out-of-pocket expenses and reputational injury,” according to W.P. The ordeal even made him afraid to seek further psychological help: He feared facing more backlash, as did other Princeton students, who reportedly became reticent to address their mental health out of the fear that they, too, could be kicked off of campus.

Of course, it’s reasonable that universities should be vigilant about how they treat vulnerable people on their campuses. After all, colleges have an obligation to make sure their students are safe. But it’s certainly telling when a university doesn’t even attempt to help students stay, basically “addressing” the problem by refusing to really address it all. Whether this decision stems from an attempt to protect their image or avoid liability suits, my experience (as well as others') shows that schools that make this decision aren’t doing it to actually help their students.

After speaking with doctors who had previously treated me and having a safety agreement drawn up, a decision was made. I’m fortunate enough to say that I was ultimately allowed to stay on campus, and I was even provided with generous accommodations.

I can now say that I’m thriving at Dartmouth, and all I needed was a second shot. Everyone deserves a chance to succeed at college, even the mentally ill. And getting that chance shouldn’t be such an uphill battle.

If you or someone you know is dealing with mental illness, there are ways to get help. Find resources, tips, and immediate help at Half of Us or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

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