The following letter came to my attention a few days ago, being circulated by current and past students. I think it’s worth examining, not necessarily for the specifics of the letter itself, but because of what it draws attention to–specifically, the complications of taking a mental health leave of absence, and returning. Note that I’m not attaching a link to the letter itself, because it is actually an editable Google Doc that is a petition for this student’s readmission; I’ve also redacted the student’s name, because again, I don’t want this to be about this specific student.

A bit of context, and my thoughts, before the letter after the break:

  1. Leaves of absence, for personal or for medical reasons, can be requested of the Dean’s office by any student. Students must submit a request for readmission to the Dean’s office by certain deadlines in order to be readmitted; for personal leaves, this doesn’t go much beyond approval by the Dean. For medical leaves, it’s a bit trickier; readmission requires submitting proof that whatever medical/psychological condition necessitated the leave of absence was resolved during the leave, including doctors’ letters and an evaluation by someone at the Health Center, and the application is then considered by a committee.
  2. I don’t have much information beyond the letter below, but: Student XXX ostensibly took a medical (psychological) leave of absence. She then applied for readmission to Williams, and was denied by the Deans. She is submitting an appeal, as is her right; in addition to her appeal, two friends drafted the below letter in support of her appeal, and circulated it for students, alumni, and staff to sign.
  3. As someone who took a medical (psychological) leave of absence myself, spending a full year away from Williams, I know just how overwhelming the readmission process can be. Say, for example, a student leaves Williams on a leave of absence because she is having debilitating symptoms of depression and is showing signs of suicidal ideation. She leaves Williams so that she can go home to see a therapist and a psychiatrist regularly, and once she is out of elevated danger, to learn to manage her condition. Obviously, we will want her to display no signs of suicidal ideation in order to be readmitted to Williams. But what does “the condition being resolved or managed successfully” mean? Depression is a lifelong illness that cannot be cured, successful management is tricky, and it’s hard to delineate some brightline that would make knowing when to readmit easy.
  4. I personally sought readmission when I began feeling that staying home was doing me more harm than being at Williams would have, but that’s not exactly a rave review. To the readmission committee, I presented myself as having learned so much about myself during my leave of absence, having stabilized everything on medication, and having no suicidal ideation. In reality, I wasn’t always doing great, and throughout the rest of my time at Williams, there would continue to be moments of crisis, moments where it was difficult to function, and more general periods of despair. But, I reasoned, that’s probably the case for a good third of Williams students at any time; I wasn’t doing so much worse than them, mental health wise, that I didn’t deserve to go back if I decided I was able.
  5. Even if you aren’t a fan of the rhetoric or any other point made in the letter, I would like to call attention to its point number 3: the fact that, during leaves of absence, you cannot stay on the school health insurance. For me, as it seemed to be for XXX, this was a total nightmare; I was already dealing with a debilitating mental health condition, and on top of that I had to figure something totally new out to get health insurance. Given that I was on a medical leave, it seems pretty obvious to me that health insurance is essential to helping students return to Williams, and being uninsured or underinsured is a detriment to that. If I took the medical leave because I knew I couldn’t give Williams my very best and needed time away from the school, then a school that cared about me–cared about me graduating, cared about me being able to do my very best–would ensure that, during that time away I elected to take, I had all the tools I needed to succeed. Instead, I very much felt thrown out and left to fend for myself.

Read more for the letter.

Dear Dean Sandstrom and the Readmission Committee,    

We are writing to you as friends of XXX XXX, partially on her behalf, but also at our own behest. We are primarily writing in regards to the decision to deny XXX readmission to Williams for the upcoming semester, and secondarily in regards to the overall readmission process following medical leave. 

First, for many students at Williams, the college, and surrounding environment, is intrinsically, and, in some cases, actively, violent. Many students of color, especially, feel isolated in Berkshire County, and feel particularly unsupported, socially, culturally, economically, politically, medically, etc., by Williams College. Having known XXX for the past few years, we can both attest to her openness and willingness to both recognize when she is struggling and to seek support from the various resources available. However, as is the case with many other students at Williams, and especially Black, low-income, or first generation students/students of color, XXX has repeatedly expressed that many of the resources available to her at Williams are unhelpful at best and harmful at worst. This is not intended as an indictment of the health center or the professionals who work there; rather, it is a reality of many marginalized students who attend predominantly white institutions (PWIs). We feel that it is unfair to hold XXX accountable for the lack of resources available to her that enable her to be and feel safe and healthy at Williams. To deny her readmission primarily on account of her alleged lack of utilization of inadequate resources places the blame on those who are chronically ill, like XXX, when it should be the equal responsibility of Williams to support and sustain her presence on campus and in the community. 

Yes, yes, I know that EphBlog is not generally a fan of statements that Williams is a violent place for students (and faculty) of color. You can get hung up on that, or you can focus on what I think is the more important point of this paragraph: as many resources as Williams tries to provide for mental health, not every therapist works for everyone, and not every treatment modality is successful for every patient.

That said, I’m unsure if I understand what the point being made here is, partially because I don’t have access to the Dean’s letter denying readmission. But if, as the letter says, she was denied “primarily on account of her alleged lack of utilization of inadequate resources,” and if, as the paragraph would suggest, said resources refer to resources at Williams College, then I’m incredibly alarmed. The argument is that XXX didn’t make use of Williams resources, ostensibly while she was still enrolled. That’s in the past; the readmission process is supposed to judge how you have improved and your condition in the present. There is nothing that XXX can ever change about how she did or did not use Williams resources. Does that mean she never has any chance of readmission?

Second, by denying XXX readmission to the fall term, Williams is preventing her from enrolling elsewhere to continue her education. As a low-income student, XXX can only attend Williams due to its financial aid, and cannot afford to attend any other institution without its financial support. In denying XXX access to Williams, the committee is, in practice, denying XXX the ability to further pursue her education more generally. If the committee feels that Williams is an unsafe space for XXX, then supporting her in finishing her Williams education at a different institution to obtain credits and continue her healing and her education would be the most in line with professed Williams values.

This gets to the question of, how much is Williams supposed to care about us as students? When we’re physically at Williams, part of the whole Williams package is that we get all the support we need to succeed. A student on a leave of absence is still a Williams student. So how far should Williams go to provide that same level of support it would as a student, when the student is not on campus but is trying to return? My instinct says maybe not paying for education at a different institution, but if not, then I would expect more resources put into helping the student return to Williams.

Third, due to the readmission policies of the college, and to the late notice of a denial of readmission, if XXX cannot enroll as a student at Williams or elsewhere during the fall semester, she will lose access to health insurance. Obviously, and especially so for someone who lives with numerous chronic physical and mental health conditions, this would be a huge hindrance to XXX’s ability to recover and heal. Without health insurance or access to student health services, XXX has expressed that she will no longer be able to afford therapy or medication, both of which have improved her wellness and her ability to manage her chronic conditions. It goes without saying, then, that to deny XXX readmission, and thus to deny her access to crucial resources that she needs to heal and to sustain herself, does not permit her further recovery, but rather impedes it. For this reason, peer institutions have allowed students to remain enrolled in student health insurance even while on medical leave. We implore Williams to consider enacting a similar policy, since such a change would benefit many students who are in the same difficult and stressful position as XXX is.

As recent alumnae of Williams College, we are profoundly concerned by the committee’s statement that Williams is an unsafe environment and that they do not feel it is safe for XXX to return at this time. How is it that you can recognize that Williams will cause harm to a student and not decide to take concrete and actionable steps to make Williams safer for XXX and others? XXX explicitly lays out the conditions that would make Williams a healthier place for her to live and learn and yet instead of taking these steps as an opportunity to increase student wellbeing, you choose to take away someone’s choice to heal, grow, and learn. This decision is a question of human decency as well as of access. By being unwilling to provide structures of support for students who are neurodiverse or struggling with mental illness, you are barring access to Williams in general, in addition to treating human beings as liabilities rather than complete individuals with needs and rights.

We have known XXX for several years and rarely in life does someone get the pleasure of knowing a person with such strong commitment to justice for everyone and with such a bright, generous soul. XXX has done so much for Williams, both for individual students and for contributing so much to movements for reproductive justice and sexual assault prevention. We feel we can say without a doubt that Williams would not be the place it is today without her dedication and commitment.

The fundamental issue I see with medical leave is this. When electing to take a medical leave, you are making the decision, with Williams’ support, to put your education on hold because there is some factor that is making it difficult to continue. In your view, you need the time away to eliminate, mitigate, or learn to deal with that factor, bringing you back to a baseline of performance and health–which might not be perfect, because it might not have ever been perfect and might not be able to be perfect, but which you believe is enough for you to continue and succeed. And, just as Williams works to help eliminate, mitigate, or help you deal with other types of factors that prevent you from succeeding–summer science and humanities programs to bring you up to speed if you didn’t attend an especially rigorous high school; therapists available throughout the year; support groups, mentoring, and on and on–you might reasonably expect that Williams will provide the same sort of help, just with you off campus. But on applying for readmission to Williams, it seems, the standards are higher than they were before. Readmission is supposed to be the goal towards which both the student and Williams are working; now, it seems like a hurdle set impossibly high.

If you’re actually interested in signing the petition for XXX’s readmission, let me know and we can figure out how to get you access; it currently has around 150 signatures.

UPDATE: The student in question was apparently successful in her appeal, and was readmitted.

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