November 4, 2014

Those who fall in the middle

As mental health issues become more serious, the University’s motivations don’t align with students’ best interests.

In March 2014, feeling alone and stressed, a first-year student who will remain nameless decided to visit Student Counseling Services, simply to “vent [her] feelings.” As she told me last night, she’s “never regretted a decision more.” The appointment seemed to run smoothly until she mentioned that she had the urge to cut and had suicidal thoughts. She made sure to explicitly state that these were urges and had no plans to harm herself in the future. Nonetheless, the professional deemed her mentally unfit to remain on campus and told her that she would have to be hospitalized. The psychiatrist prevented her from calling her parents, pressuring her to sign the medical release forms, saying “it would be easier” if she went voluntarily. Completely overwhelmed, she signed the form without truly processing what it meant. A few minutes later, medics arrived, strapped her down to a stretcher, and took her to a hospital miles away from campus. “I’ve never felt more violated,” she said. “I was treated like a criminally insane person, when all I wanted was somebody to talk to.”

At the hospital, she was forced to relinquish all electronics and wasn’t allowed to contact anybody. She was completely isolated from the support of family and friends: “It was like jail. They took away my school work, my clothes, my phone and computer. They wouldn’t even let me have a stuffed animal.” Although she was eventually discharged, she wasn’t allowed back on campus—not even to retrieve personal belongings from her dorm. Once she was deemed fit to return, she was weeks behind on school work, making her stress increase tenfold. She describes the experience as “traumatic” and vows never to return to the counseling center. 

She’s not alone. During her brief hospitalization at Lakeshore Hospital, she met three other UChicago students undergoing the same traumatic experience who expressed similar resentment towards Student Counseling.  One of these students, Karyn, writes in a blog post documenting her experience that although she thought “the hospital was too much,” she signed the release forms because doctors assured her the move was “precautionary.” She remembers “how ashamed [she] felt when the ambulance pulled up in front of Student Counseling,” and “accepted [her] defeat” after she was unnecessarily restrained on a stretcher.  Sindhu Gnanasambandan’s article “Sign Here” in Grey City Magazine recounts even more students who “were not fully willing but rather pushed to exit the University.” Each of their stories follow a similar trend: after being pressured to sign a release form, the student in some way or another recovers in facilities off campus, and then has to prove their “mental stability” to a very reluctant Susan Art, the Dean of Students. In one case, Art was unwilling to allow a student to return to campus “even after her private doctors approved the move.”

In a Newsweek article published this past February, “dozens of current or recent students at colleges and universities across the country” said that they were “punished for seeking help: kicked out of campus housing with nowhere else to go, abruptly forced to withdraw from school, and even involuntarily committed to psychiatric wards.” Universities are completely paranoid about the idea of an on-campus death—especially a suicide. As evidenced by cases such as the Supreme Court case Shin v. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, university liability for student suicides is a growing question. Not only that, but a school’s image is of utmost importance, especially when trying to attract new students. A suicide could tarnish a school’s reputation, and could hurt the number of future applicants. Schools thus try to avoid on-campus suicides by physically removing students with mental health issues from campus and preventing them from returning until they are deemed “mentally fit.”  As Art herself said to Grey City: “We do coerce some students into taking a leave and signing the form” as that is “the best medical advice we have.”

The University of Chicago’s student manual claims that its “first concern is always the health and well-being of each student,” but these efforts to avoid the repercussions of a suicide completely miss the point—and in some cases may not be entirely legal. In 2012, the Bazelon Health Center for Mental Health Law filed a discrimination complaint against Princeton University after an unnamed student was coerced to sign a release form and was prevented from returning to campus for one year even though “he was fully capable, [...] of meeting the essential eligibility requirements for being a Princeton student.” This student was evicted from his dorm without the option of alternative housing. Despite his efforts, he was not allowed a single semester of leave or a part time course load, because these accommodations, according to the university, detracted from the “Princeton Experience.” His lawyers made the case that the student’s experience violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which “forbids organizations and employers from excluding or denying individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to receive program benefits and services.”  Although the student returned to Princeton almost a year later, his case remains in appeal with no sign of being resolved in the near future. The Bazelon Center is currently in talks with the United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to “try and form consistent policies, so that universities have standard procedures for cases like this.”

If universities like the University of Chicago truly cared about the students’ well-being and mental health, they would encourage them to seek further professional treatment, while remaining on campus where they have a stable routine and support system. By punishing students with mental health problems, the University implicitly discourages students from seeking help. This also isolates students from their support systems. In order to get better, students need compassion and the promise of stability—two things the University is obviously not providing. Instead, it seems to be employing a strategic plan to remove any students who show the signs of possibly becoming a liability. This approach negatively impacts the student body as a whole.

I’m not saying that the Student Counseling Center is a terrible resource that shouldn’t ever be used. For less pressing problems with schoolwork or a relationship, etc., I’m sure SCS is more than accommodating, and there are a number of trained professionals who are willing to lend an ear. Likewise, if you have a serious mental issue and the urge to hurt yourself or others, completely intending to act on those thoughts, I urge you to visit SCS so they can put you in touch with the correct facilities to help you get better. However, those who fall in the middle of these two extremes need to take a great deal of caution when making use of SCS. There seems to be an incredibly low threshold for what is considered “mentally unfit,” and a serious proclivity for overreaction on the part of the school. The University’s knowledge of whether or not hospitalization or other disciplinary actions is in the best interest of the student is extremely questionable and has, in several cases, caused more harm than good.

Sarah Zimmerman is a second-year in the College majoring in English.