By Leah Harris 

Destigmatizing Mental Health on Campus: The Stanford Settlement and the Urgent Need for Change

College can be an intense and destabilizing environment for many young people. Often, they are living far away from their families and extended support systems for the first time. Without adequate social-emotional support, students’ distress can spiral into thoughts of suicide. Students experiencing a mental health crisis are rightly encouraged to ask for help. But what happens when “help” comes with a hefty price tag, including being told to leave campus? 

On some college campuses, students who are suicidal or experiencing other mental health challenges can be forced to take what is called “involuntary leave” or “involuntary withdrawal.” As the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law notes in a report on discrimination on college campuses: “Too often colleges and universities lack a comprehensive plan for addressing such situations or respond to such students in punitive ways, requiring them to leave or evicting them from college/university housing. Some students may even be charged with disciplinary violations for suicidal gestures or thoughts.” 

At some colleges and universities, students with mental health conditions are barred from entering the campus while on involuntary leave –restricting access to important protective relationships with friends, professors, and the campus community, which further endangers mental health and well-being.

According to the Palo Alto Online, “The lawsuit alleged that Stanford repeatedly violated state and federal anti-discrimination laws in its response to students with mental health disabilities, including those who have been hospitalized for suicide attempts. Student-plaintiffs criticized Stanford’s involuntary leave of absence policy and procedures as punitive and ‘onerous.’” One of the plaintiffs, Harrison Fowler, told Palo Alto Online, “I wasn’t presented with any other options. (When) I got out of the hospital … they had already moved my stuff out of the dorm.” 

For students who do not have families to return to, or lack other social safety nets, such draconian policies mean that they will become homeless following discharge from a psychiatric hospital, due to punitive and discriminatory campus leave policies.

Stanford did not admit liability, but as a result of the settlement agreed to revise its involuntary leave policy, to improve access to mental health support on campus, to provide training for those involved with implementing such leave policies, and to pay for the plaintiff’s legal fees. The new policy will take effect in January 2020.

Allilsa Fernandez, activist and founder of the Peer Mental Health Alliance at Stony Brook University, said: “I am so glad that the students received the justice they deserve and that the policies may change for the better in Stanford. But I would rather see a systematic change than these lawsuits. Currently there have been several schools sued over the medical leave policies (Hunter College, George Washington, Princeton, to name a few). This means that each school is sued over this issue, and if you look at the settlement, it’s about $300,000 to $500,000. This is each case!”

Fernandez added: “In some cases, one lawsuit doesn’t mean it won’t happen again. For example, take George Washington [University]. They had a lawsuit and settled, but I have personally heard from students with similar experiences recently, years after that settlement. A settlement doesn’t necessarily means things will be better in the future.” 

Fernandez spoke to the urgent need for systemic change. “This is a national crisis, as it’s happening nationally in countless schools, creating homelessness, and far more economic and medical issues. This money, to me, would be best spent in actually providing accommodations to students as the law states should be given to them.”

Fernandez recently participated in a Mental Health America webinar along with DRA attorney Monica Porter, sharing about her experiences organizing for students’ rights on her campus, and providing encouragement and guidance for other students wishing to do the same. 

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