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Admission and Mental Illness

Last week’s post discussed the readmission process after a medical leave of absence due to mental illness. In the comments, DDF wrote this:

If you were Sandstrom, would you re-admit a student at (medium? high?) risk of suicide?

That brings an equally interesting, yet somehow wholly different question: should Williams admit such a student in the first place?

It’s different, of course, because it’s an admissions committee making the decision vs a smaller, less formal, and less dedicated (it’s not their only job) committee that decides readmission. Last week, we had a whole discussion about what’s in the best interest of the student, and what’s in the best interest of the school, when it comes to readmitting students who have struggled with mental illness. That all comes with the prerequisite, though, that the student told the college about their mental illness (in the form of their application for a medical/psychological leave of absence) and is now relying on the college to make a decision about their readiness to return to Williams.

To get admitted in the first place, however, they had to go through no such process. You don’t have to disclose that you have any sort of disability on your college application (I’m pretty sure that’d be a violation of the ADA). You can choose to, of course, if you want to write an essay about it.

My guess is that students with very impactful physical disabilities or diseases will often choose to do this; if their disability has had a large impact on their lives, the challenges they’ve had to overcome, and the way they see the world, then that is, quite rightly, something they can and should highlight in an essay to set them apart to an admissions committee. The fact that the student is submitting the application means that they believe they will be able to handle college life with their disability; if the admissions committee determines this is the case academically, they will admit the student and will work to provide any accommodations needed for the student’s success.

Mental illnesses theoretically work similarly, in the sense that they don’t have to be disclosed under the ADA, and that once the student is admitted they can get the accommodations they need to succeed.

However, disclosing a mental illness in a college admissions essay is probably a lot rarer–and a lot less “successful,” in the sense that it probably gives college admissions committees more reason to doubt the student’s ability to thrive than convinces them of the student’s tenacity and unique perspective. Should this be the case? If a student comes into the college with a mental illness, should their readiness for college be inherently doubted?

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A Readmission Appeal, and an Appeal to Reconsider Readmission

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.

Read more

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Introducing recent grad

Hello! I’m recent grad. Travel schedules prevented me from posting until now–thank you, David, for covering for me–but from now I’ll be posting on Thursdays. I chose my terribly creative screen name (would you have been able to guess that I just graduated?) because it was the first thing I thought of what seemed relevant when I only planned on making a comment or two. When David said he was going to publish that comment as a post of its own, I was rather pleased, not only because it’s nice to see your own words published publicly, but because mental health, the topic of that comment, is a subject that’s really important to me. I was dismayed, then, when that discussion instead turned to the only off-topic mess that comments here tended to be. I want to have actual, productive discussions about mental health at Williams, and other topics important to me; thus, my joining on in this experiment. That said, if anyone has a username suggestion that’s better than “recent grad,” that’s one off-topic subject I’ll be happy to discuss.

I’m not sure what my “niche” will be here, and suggestions are welcome. That said, one thing I can provide (moreso than other authors, perhaps, except purple and gold–you’re still a student, right?) is some insight into campus culture right now. I’ve graduated, but my Facebook feed and Instagram is still dominated by Williams students, the majority of whom are still students; of course, what I see there is biased by the circles I was in and the things that interested me, but nevertheless, it gives me a glimpse into what’s being talked about that, combined with my own experiences, might be useful. Student perspectives certainly tend to be misrepresented here.

My first real post will be coming tomorrow morning!

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