Chase, who requested her last name be withheld, entered Penn knowing she had ADHD. Later, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Still, she was excited to be at a school that she had worked so hard to get into and confident that she would be able to get through college okay.
By spring, her advisors were pushing for her to leave campus.
“From the beginning moment when I started to struggle, they were like, ‘Hey why don’t you go off campus. Go, go away,’” says Chase. “I was like I know I can do this, I want to stay, but they kept telling me—my CAPS therapist, my advisor, everyone kept nudging me, leave, leave, leave, and it really felt like they were afraid that I was going to do something dumb when I was on campus and push up the suicide rate.”
Chase’s story may sound familiar to other students who take leaves of absence. Despite the fact that the University has invested heavily in its mental health and wellness resources in recent years, Penn frequently encourages struggling students to take leaves from campus. This past summer, , a move that was part of the Wellness at Penn initiative. The directive aims to “affirm wellness as a core priority” and “open ourselves up to our vulnerabilities and what makes us human,” per the official Wellness at Penn website.
Despite these new resources, Penn’s most vulnerable students are frequently forced off of campus, strong–armed by rigid leave policies that deflect them away from the University. “It felt like I was a liability to them,” says Chase about her leave. “I felt like they were doing it with Penn’s best interest in mind.”
Claire (C '21)**, took a leave of absence during her freshman year after a serious mental health crisis. Though she found being away from campus helpful, the process surrounding her leave was stressful and tiring. She found herself repeatedly explaining her situation. “This was like the worst process for someone who’s just had a crisis, like waiting around in the CAPS office, putting me from one office to another office,” says Claire, whose case was handled primarily by Student Intervention Services (SIS).
Like Claire, Chase also found the processes leading her to leave frustrating: “My academic advisor told me that I should take a leave of absence and I didn’t want to,” she says. “I thought I was capable of finishing the semester until he told me basically that I needed to take a leave of absence or else I would fail.” Despite Chase’s confidence in her academic ability, her support system at Penn insisted that she leave campus instead.
According to the College of Arts and Sciences , “a leave is a means to a successful completion of a degree, not a barrier to graduating.” Professor Ross Aikins, who manages the Higher Education Department at Penn’s Graduate School of Education and who teaches graduate–level courses in university policy and student mental health, agrees. “I think it is important for the student and the university to have some sort of leave policy but not for that policy to be inflexible. It’s really a case–by–case basis,” Aikins says. “Sometimes it is really in everybody’s best interest for a student to take a leave.”
John**, who is currently on leave from Penn after suffering from serious depression and anxiety last spring, believes that leave was the correct choice for him. “I still don’t regret taking leave,” says John, who is in the process of being reinstated at the University and is preparing to return next semester.
Though John was able to get helpful, intensive treatment during his time away from Penn, he recognizes that many students are not as lucky. His socioeconomic status and family circumstances granted him access to treatments and resources that many students might not have at their disposal. “I know that 90% of kids in my situation are missing a lot of the pieces that I have to keep life livable when everything is on hold.” Though leave is helpful for some, many students don’t have the opportunities for sufficient care or family support that others do.
All leaves are technically leaves from an academic program at a specific school. Student Intervention Services (SIS) is the University’s arm for coordinating the moving pieces of the various academic and health resources at Penn for students going on leave.
Rob Nelson, the point of contact for SIS and the Executive Director for Education and Planning at the Vice Provost’s office, thinks that a leave is generally beneficial to students for whom it is recommended. When a “student is struggling with what’s in his or her best interest,” Nelson says, “there is often an evaluation of the student’s circumstances in which an academic advisor or a member of the SIS team is saying look, request a leave.”
The decision to leave Penn isn’t the only one with multiple parties involved; coming back poses its own set of challenges. While John used his leave to seek out intensive treatment for his mental health and feels like it “was real life–changing stuff,” he was not able to return to school this semester, despite what his clinicians and therapists have told him. “I’m more prepared to take on life’s challenges now than years ago. I was done with intensive treatment more than six months ago.”
In practice, the overly bureaucratic and poorly–managed process that taking a leave of absence and returning from one constitutes adds a layer of stress to an already fraught situation. Once she signed the paperwork, Chase describes a process that belittled and alienated her. “It’s just a sudden uprooting where you have to leave immediately,” Chase says.
Chase’s mother was forced to take time off work to fly to Philadelphia to help her move out because of the short notice that Penn gave her. “They don’t let you linger. It’s like a week from the time your process begins. You’re just gone. I was upset, I felt betrayed.”
Leaving campus so abruptly has other restrictive implications. If a student takes a leave any time after the add–drop registration deadline, the rest of that semester is not counted by the University and the student is forced to stay off of campus for another full semester. This policy is often unclear, and many students who request leave do so not knowing that they’ll likely be away from campus for as long as ten months.
Chase was forced to stay away from campus through the fall semester, despite describing herself as “one hundred percent functional” by the time fall rolled around.
“I was so frustrated and bored that I ended up taking classes at community college while I waited to come back,” she says. Though Chase was on mental health leave, she was back to taking classes and working full–time before the University would have her back.
The University’s caution with students struggling with mental illness might be a result of the legal risk those students pose while enrolled. In 2016, Wharton Junior Olivia Kong committed suicide while at Penn, by Kong’s parents is ongoing. The lawsuit, which is one of three ongoing suits regarding suicide among students, specifically accuses Penn of neglect and not providing the appropriate mental health resources to Kong.
With universities being held more accountable for instances of self–harm and suicide, it is no surprise that Penn is increasing resources to deal with this issue. Aikins sees this as part of a push towards litigation in higher education. “We live in kind of a more litigious society, a more litigious country, and institutions have been increasingly concerned with limiting liability,” says Aikins.
Behind all of the wellness initiatives and emphasis on mental health, there is backdrop of risk prevention. “So absolutely, colleges and universities are trying to minimize risk. That’s nothing new, but I think that there’s been certain events or sort of a policy wave toward indemnification, in terms of wanting to protect oneself from risk from a variety of factors,” Aikins adds.
Properly addressing a student’s need for a leave of absence is complicated. It requires working with multiple student agencies, taking into account academic life, family life, economic status, and administrative discretion.
It is with this system that John sees the major issue with leave policy. “The big thing is that their entire system for mental health care is really, really loose. It’s more about addressing immediate problems in a band–aid way than really implementing a coherent system that keeps kids healthy,” John says. “Leave of absence is good. But they never really got beyond that immediate band–aid situation. And leave is not coordinated well with CAPS, and CAPS is not coordinated well with your case advisor, and none of that is coordinated with academics. It’s never really been put together in a cohesive whole.”
Despite these struggles and systematic inconsistencies, most students who go on leave do come back and finish school. A 2013 University report on Student Psychological Health and Welfare found that five percent of the graduating class of undergraduates had taken a leave of absence during their time at the school. Almost all of them returned to Penn and completed their degree.
John feels like he would be on campus if “any holistic approach to my situation” had been employed. “I don’t know who’s making the decisions or what information they use to make these decisions,” says John. “I think that liability is a big part of it.” John’s clinicians believe he’s ready to return to campus, but he still doesn’t know whether Penn will have him back next semester.
** Indicates a name has been changed.
Chris Schiller is a freshman from New York, New York and studies English in the College. He is a features staff writer for Street.