image by flickr user kingfishpies (cc license)

This recent Newsweek article on college reactions to student mental illness has made a big impact in the last couple of weeks. The article collected dozens of stories concerning a lack of ideal accommodations for college students afflicted with mental illnesses. Particularly compelling are the stories of Dan, Wesley and Shireen.

  • Dan, a depressed student who overdosed on his antidepressant at Princeton, was forced to withdraw in the middle of an academic term. Despite a hospital clearing him as not posing “imminent harm to himself or others,” Dan was evicted from his dorm room, banned from classes and prohibited from campus. Dan eventually filed a disability discrimination complaint with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Dan was able to reenroll the next academic, only after hiring a lawyer and appealing the university’s decision.
  • Wesley, a student with mild schizophrenia at Sarah Lawrence College, although not deemed a threat to himself or others, was not allowed to return for a spring semester after a science fiction essay he wrote made the college believe he was unpredictable in his behavior.
  • Shireen, a depressed student who cut herself while at University of California at Santa Barbara, was told that she could be suspended or expelled for her cutting behavior, was told she was “on the university’s radar” by many people and was told that she put the entire residence hall in danger with her actions. The director of her residence hall stated that Shireen could “only stay in school if she waived her confidentiality and allowed her therapist to provide weekly reports to the administration.”

This is horrifying news. But, as the note that Newsweek collected more than two-dozen of these stories suggests, this may not be entirely uncommon. In fact, there is strong statistical evidence that colleges are failing to provide adequate services for those with mental illnesses.

In the National Alliance for Mental Illness’s 2012 study, College Students Speak, the prevalence of college student mental illness was confirmed—but, more problematically, the frequency with which the colleges were able to help with the illness was far short of ideal.

  • Of survey respondents, sixty-four percent of those students who have stopped attending college are no longer attending because of mental health related reasons. The primary diagnoses of these students are depression, bipolar disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder.
  • Seventy-two percent of responding students experienced a mental health crisis on campus. Yet 34 percent reported that their college did not know about their crisis.
  • More than 45 percent of students who stopped attending college because of mental health-related reasons did not receive accommodations. Additionally, 50% of them did not access mental health services and supports.
    • Fifty-seven percent of responding students did not access accommodations through college disability resource centers, often citing that they were unaware such services and supports existed or did not know how to access them. Forty percent of students did not access mental health services and supports at their school.
    • Thirty-six percent of responding students cited stigma as a barrier to accessing their college’s mental health services and supports, making it the number one reason students don’t access treatment.

Such stories as the ones in the Newsweek article and NAMI’s College Students Speak clarify a grave and serious matter. As the higher education legal researcher at College Parents of America recently noted, “inadequate college accommodations of a disability, mental or physical, are a potential violation of a student’s civil and human rights to access, equally and without discrimination, a postsecondary education.”  News and Norms, a blog that posts on the intersections of human rights norms and news stories seems to agree with that assessment [read their full post here].

Hopefully this is a story that gets resolved for students going forward. The Newsweek article notes that universities and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights require better information and clarity on the best way to handle regulations concerning these disclosures. However, on such issues, perhaps it’s best to let the college students let us know what they think would best help them complete their degrees:

From NAMI’s College Students Speak:

  • What accommodations do students with mental illness identify as most critical to their success?
    • Excused absences for treatment: 54%
    • Medical leave of absence: 46%
    • Course withdrawals without penalty: 46%
    • Adjustments in test setting: 34%
    • Homework deadline extensions: 33%
    • Adjustments in test times: 33%
    • Increased availability of academic advisors: 32%