Jordan Nott did what he was supposed to do. Having become depressed after a friend’s suicide, the sophomore at George Washington University checked himself into the university’s hospital one night when he was contemplating suicide.
As a result, Nott received a letter a day and a half later from George Washington’s administrators: Either withdraw from school, or face disciplinary proceedings for violating the school’s code of student conduct. His “endangering behavior” – being suicidal – could result in suspension or expulsion if he chose not to withdraw.
Nott withdrew from school, and his case has received national attention and criticism that universities, often out of fear over potential lawsuits, have sought to distance themselves from students who need help. The Washington Post, which covered Nott’s story, reported that in recent years, an increasing number of colleges and universities have added involuntary-leave policies for mentally ill students.
One of them, it appears, is this institution.
On a website listing University policies affecting students, there’s a policy titled “Emergency Mental Health Withdrawal and Readmission.” It lays out a mechanism by which a student with mental health concerns can seek to withdraw from the University. It also contains provisions for the administration to seek an involuntary withdrawal. Associate Dean of Students Stephanie Pinder-Amaker confirmed that this is a relatively new policy, which went into effect on Jan. 6, 2004.
I was shocked when I found out about this policy. On the surface, it appears to allow what happened to Jordan Nott to happen to any student here. Though speaking to University administrators has allayed my worst fears, I still find some aspects of the policy deeply troubling.
I spoke with Sam Goodin, the director of services for students with disabilities and one of the policy’s original authors. Goodin pointed out that no students have been withdrawn under the policy. Fears that the University is quietly ridding itself of any student who becomes depressed are unfounded.
And, according to Goodin, the University certainly did not draw up the policy as a means of avoiding liability in any lawsuits that might result from a student’s suicide. “That never came up with the group that wrote it or the group that implemented it,” he said.
Goodin presented the mental health withdrawal policy as a means of avoiding a rash decision. “If (the policy is) followed, we shouldn’t do what George Washington did,” he said. Under the policy, students would have some input into the decision of whether they will be allowed to stay at the University. “The point of it,” Goodin explained, “is to have enough due process that we don’t violate a student’s rights.”
Written guidelines for making a withdrawal decision that Goodin provided support this benign interpretation of the policy. In addition to considering whether a student is compliant with treatments for his disorder, those making a withdrawal decision would be instructed to consider factors such as which potential solution would be least disruptive, or how a change in where the students lives would affect her.
The policy on mental-health withdrawal is written, however, in such a manner that it could lead to a situation similar to Nott’s in its effect, if not in its callousness. Particularly troubling is a provision for emergency interim withdrawal. Although this part of the policy urges that “every attempt” be made to meet with the student, it appears possible under the wording that a hospitalized student could be temporarily withdrawn without being consulted.
That, admittedly, is a far-fetched concern for a policy that has not been used so far. But there’s a much broader problem here: Why should the University be able to suspend a student against his will on account of his mental illness?
Certainly, there are situations where a student will respond better to treatment in the company of his family, away from academic pressures. It seems equally clear, though, that there are cases where leaving one’s friends and classes behind in Ann Arbor would do more harm than good. To suggest that the University would know a student’s interest better than the student himself is more than just a return to the in loco parentis doctrine of decades past; it’s an unproductive assertion of power more likely to breed resentment than recovery.
Besides, there are already enough barriers facing students seeking help for a mental illness, ranging from the long wait times for an appointment at Counseling and Psychological Services to broad, harmful societal stigmas – that people with mental illnesses are “weak,” that depressed people can just “snap out of it.” Do we really need to add the possibility, however remote, that the University might seek an involuntary withdrawal to the list of concerns facing a student who is trying to build the courage to seek treatment?
Events this semester have shown, tragically, that not every student at the University with a mental illness receives the help he needs. All of us, students and administrators alike, should be doing what we can to make it easier for those who need treatment to seek it. I fail to see how the University’s involuntary withdrawal policy contributes to that goal.
Zbrozek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org