It’s undeniable that mental illness is an important issue on college campuses, especially at Stanford, where students are constantly pressured to succeed. It’s undeniable, too, that stigma against mental illness is a form of ableism — something that blames individuals for their struggles instead of attending to structural issues like a lack of accessibility to mental health resources. Which is why it’s so frustrating to learn that Stanford has made it a matter of institutional policy to treat students struggling with mental illness as security risks to be disciplined, and not as people with disabilities, worthy of respect. Through a gross misapplication of its Dean’s leave of absence policy, Stanford has evicted students from on-campus housing and barred them from campus for either expressing suicidal ideas or acting on suicidal thoughts, without regard to the facts of each individual’s case and the possible long-term impact of its actions on students’ health and recovery.
Given this, we believe that the current Dean’s leave of absence policy represents an area where Stanford can do much better as an institution. While we understand the rationale behind creating a mechanism that allows students to leave campus for their own health and safety, the present impact of the policy does not reflect those intentions at all. Stanford’s current policy has forced students to leave even when the university was told it would be harmful by students’ own therapists; it has systematically denied students access to options other than involuntary leave; and it is not attentive to the long-term, potentially traumatic impact involuntary leave has on students’ well-being. In addition, students are required to write statements apologizing for the impact their actions have had on the campus community in order to return. This policy effectively blames students for their struggles instead of treating them with care. While on leave, students are not allowed to be present on campus, distancing them from support systems of friends and communities that are often essential to their mental health. If students return to campus, their access to stable housing is often curtailed, and they’ve often had to pay multiple fees to return, such as fees for early housing termination due to a leave that was out of their control in the first place.
We are frustrated that it has taken a lawsuit to force Stanford to confront the inhumanity of its current leave of absence policies. We are frustrated, too, because of the damaging impact this news has had on the state of mental health on-campus — students are afraid to confide in their staff members, community leaders and on-campus psychological services because of a deep fear that they will be punished instead of supported, further exacerbating a culture which already stigmatizes those struggling with mental illness.
In a Notes from the Quad blog post on May 24, 2018, Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie-Brubaker Cole stated that the work around mental health on campus “must include helping students in crisis, but equally important it must prevent crises by creating a campus environment that promotes wellbeing for all.” But we want to emphasize that cultural change is not enough so long as Stanford’s own policies around mental illness are inhumane and deficient. If Stanford is seriously committed to creating a campus environment that is safe for struggling students and one where students can be sure that administrators are here to help, its policies must become radically more compassionate and understanding.
Last fall quarter, the Stanford Asian American Activism Committee set up a board at White Plaza asking students to share their thoughts about mental health at Stanford. Here is one anonymous comment:
“Stanford acts like it cares. It says, ‘If you’re struggling, reach out to CAPS. Reach out to your RD. Reach out to dorm staff.’ And if you do reach out because you genuinely want help, and you are honest about what you need help with, like suicidal ideation, Stanford will use it against you. Once they realize that you’re actually at risk, they’ll kick you out when they can so you don’t kill yourself here. At Stanford.”
We are calling on the administration to act so that students no longer have to feel as if the resources specifically set up to assist them are antagonistic or unsafe. Thus, as concerned students and members of the Stanford community, and in solidarity with all those already impacted by the current Dean’s leave of absence policy, we ask the administration for the following:
- That the Dean’s leave of absence policy — specifically, the circumstances that set the process in motion and the steps taken by the administration to evaluate students — be made clear and transparent. This process should seriously consider the recommendations of therapists and actively involve students in the decisions that are made pertaining to their care.
- That the Dean’s leave of absence policy recognize mental illness as a type of disability, and acknowledge that students with disabilities have legal protections including the right to full use of Stanford’s resources and reasonable accommodations.
- That involuntary leave for students be treated as an extreme, last resort option, given the serious impact it has on students’ health and well-being; and that other options including but not limited to reduced course-loads and medium to long-term therapy programs, be seriously considered.
- That the Dean’s leave of absence policy remove the requirement for students to write statements of apology in order to return to campus, and that the policy be reworded to not suggest in any way that affected students are liabilities.
- That students who are subject to involuntary leave due to mental health concerns not be liable for fees incurred due to the leave, including but not limited to early termination fees for housing
- That students who are subject to involuntary leave due to mental health concerns are not penalized by a deduction of time from their number of guaranteed years of undergraduate housing.
- That students who have already been impacted by the Dean’s leave of absence policy are retroactively refunded for fees incurred due to that policy, and restored their guaranteed years of housing, if applicable.
- That the University officially apologize to the students negatively impacted by the Dean’s leave of absence policy, acknowledging that the policy seriously disregarded the mental well-being of students, treating them as liabilities instead of as individuals with disabilities.
We will be holding a rally at 12:30 p.m. on Feb. 20 in White Plaza in support of these priorities. And you can sign on in support of our statement at tinyurl.com/dloapetition
The Stanford Asian American Activism Committee (SAAAC)
Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) 20th Undergraduate Senate
The Pilipino American Student Union (PASU)
Stanford First Generation and Low Income Partnership (FLIP)
Stanford Asian American Students’ Association (AASA)
Black and Queer at Stanford (BlaQS)
Stanford American Indian Organization (SAIO)
Stanford Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
Students for a Sustainable Stanford (SSS)
To learn more:
The Dean’s Leave of Absence policy:
Disability Rights Advocates’ report on the lawsuit it has filed against Stanford:
A Stanford Daily article on the experiences of students affected by the policy (includes the students involved in the lawsuit + a couple more who are not):
A New York Times piece on the policy:
Vice Provost of Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole’s statement on mental health in Notes from the Quad:
Letter from Dr. Bina Patel, director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), on CAPS and concerns about students’ privacy in wake of the lawsuit: