‘College Isn’t for Everyone’: Mentally Ill Students Say Universities Like Stanford Are Leaving Them Behind

According to a complaint filed last month in California district court, while three Stanford students were dealing with mental health issues, the university pushed them to take leaves of absence and excluded them from student housing and opportunities without following due diligence by evaluating their need for accommodations.

[Photo: A sad college student looks in the distance]
These issues are not limited to Stanford. According to the National Council on Disability, the number of students with mental health conditions is on the rise, and universities are struggling to keep up with their needs, despite legal mandates for disability inclusion. Shutterstock

When Stanford student “Emily W.” attempted suicide in 2013, a representative of the elite California university “told her she was ‘a liability,’ and ‘people like you tend not to succeed,’ or words to that effect” before revoking her housing and forcing her to take a leave of absence, according to a complaint filed last month in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

The suit, filed by the Berkeley-based Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), seeks class-action status for students like “Emily” affected by what DRA calls “discriminatory policies and practices” that have made it hard for them to thrive at one of the most prestigious universities in the United States. It could have big implications for the way universities handle mental health crises and students in need of support in the future.

According to the complaint, while the anonymous plaintiffs were dealing with mental health issues as Stanford students, the university pushed them to take leaves of absence and excluded them from student housing and opportunities, without following due diligence by evaluating their need for accommodations. Furthermore, when the students wanted to return to campus, they were required to sign a formal apology letter for being a “disruption.” This, argues the suit, is disability discrimination. The plaintiffs say Stanford is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act—which forbids disability discrimination in programs receiving federal funds—and several state laws.

This case, which may have wider applicability for college students all over the United States, asserts that students have a right to university resources even during mental health crises, and that universities must accommodate mentally ill students under the law.

These issues are not limited to Stanford. According to the National Council on Disability, the number of students with mental health conditions is on the rise, and universities are struggling to keep up with their needs, despite legal mandates for disability inclusion.

Mentally ill students across the United States report a variety of discriminatory practices when they seek help, including denial of classroom accommodations, stigmatizing comments from university personnel, and practices evidently intended to drive them from campus.

Andrea Pino, an activist and co-founder of End Rape on Campus whose work has led her in the direction of disability issues on campus, says colleges broadly recognize the need for accommodations like wheelchair-accessible buildings. But, she notes, they can struggle with things like extending paper deadlines for anxiety; allowing students to request new housing if a building exacerbates mental health symptoms like PTSD triggered by noisy or crowded environments; or referring students to regular counseling. “Maybe because they’re psychiatric, not physical,” Pino remarked. And as the Stanford suit alleges, when students go into crisis—whether it’s experiencing suicidal ideation, mania, psychosis, or another issue—the university response is sometimes to get them off campus, not connect them with accommodations and services. For instance, “Tina Y.,” one of the plaintiffs in the Stanford suit, claims the university discriminated against her with a forced leave of absence when she “experienced a PTSD episode” during a study abroad program.

There’s another element to this issue as well—mental illness often onsets at college age, so students arrive on campus with budding mental health conditions and little experience in self-advocacy or knowing what kinds of accommodations they need.

One student, who asked to remain anonymous, told Rewire.News that when she took a leave of absence from her college in the northeastern United States for mental health reasons, she was automatically put on a “blacklist” and barred from campus—something she says no one advised her about at the time. In order to be readmitted, she was told she needed “a doctor’s note vouching for my mental stability.” She ultimately transferred to another school to complete her education, but when she returned to watch friends graduate, she “was escorted off campus by public safety” officers.

Lucy, who asked that Rewire.News use a pseudonym, entered her undergraduate program at a large Midwestern university with a history of trauma. “I was going through a rough time that semester and went to an administrator convinced that I was dying. They sent me to the mental health clinic,” said Lucy, who is now a Ph.D. student. The health clinic called the police, who transported her to a hospital off campus for evaluation, where she “had to sit in solitary for four to five hours only to be released without any transportation back to campus.” In the aftermath of the incident, she emailed her adviser, and that led to an awkward conversation.

“We … had a meeting, where she suggested I go visit my friend in Indiana and just stay there. I said ‘Oh, like a long break. Maybe take a semester off’ and she said, ‘Or just, you know, maybe you should just stop. College isn’t for everyone,'” Lucy told Rewire.News.

Other students, like Rebecca, who attended a mid-sized liberal arts university in the Appalachian region, also reported problems with student health services and pressure to take a leave of absence or withdraw from school. While they never actually withdrew, Rebecca—who requested that their last name not be used—found themselves trapped in an endless cycle of reaching out for help and being connected to an emergency counselor, but never being referred for regular counseling and support services. At one point, they told Rewire.News, the dean heavily intimated that they should withdraw, threatening that they might be “asked to leave” because they were a “drain on school resources.”

Policies that respond to students in psychiatric distress with forced leaves or expulsion have a chilling effect, leading others to avoid reaching out for help. When contact with the counseling center is used to justify excluding students from academic life and the social networks they’re building at school, it can be challenging to manage mental health conditions, let alone get immediate aid in an emergency. The Stanford Mental Health and Wellness Coalition, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, says: “Students aren’t using campus mental health resources because they’re afraid of being punished if they reach out.”

A Stanford spokesperson directed Rewire.News to the university’s statement on the suit, which includes a comment that: “For over two months prior to the filing of the suit, the University has been engaged with Disability Rights Advocates, the lawyers representing the students in the current case, about their concerns with Stanford’s policies. During the course of this engagement, we had adopted a new policy on housing holds that communicates our process clearly and transparently, and we were continuing to talk to them when the suit was filed.”

If the Stanford plaintiffs are successful in reaching a settlement with the school or moving the suit through the courts, it may send a warning shot across the bow of other university administrations. It could also be a valuable tool for students facing similar situations in schools elsewhere. In this case, they are not seeking monetary damages. Instead, they want to see the university revamp its leave of absence policy to make it more inclusive, and to address the shortcomings with its re-enrollment system, including requirements that students submit medical records and agree to treatment plans recommended by university doctors, not their personal practitioners. Pino says reforming re-enrollment policies is critical—some of the students she counsels experience barriers to re-enrollment that are so significant, they can’t return. Their work could result in a model leave of absence policy informed by disability advocates and other stakeholders that could be adopted by colleges and universities across the United States. It might also provide an example for students seeking other accommodations for different mental health needs.

At a time when celebrities are talking about mental health and colleges are signing on to Mental Health Awareness Month, vulnerable students are still feeling left out. Discriminatory policies at colleges and universities can have a lasting impact on students’ academic futures and job prospects. And like other disabled students, the Stanford complainants say they simply want equal access.