Students: mental health at university



It was recently reported in the New York Times how freshman Harrison Fowler’s mental ill-health was handled at the prestigious Stanford University, one of the world’s leading teaching and research institutions in the US when he enrolled last year.

He took the decision to finally address the angst he had been struggling with for a long time. When he approached the on-campus mental health counselling centre he was advised to admit himself into hospital which he agreed to do. From there, he was sent to a private outpatient treatment centre where he was prescribed an antidepressant that he said triggered suicidal fantasies.

Fowler’s mental ill-health meant it wasn’t long before he was back in the hospital, being urged to return home to Texas.

Fowler didn’t want to leave his studies and he blamed the decline in his mental health on the medication he had been prescribed. In the end, he had no choice to take a year off from his studies and he is now part of a class-action lawsuit accusing the university of discriminating against students with mental health issues by coercing them into taking a leave of absence, rather than trying to meet their needs on campus.


It is interesting to compare how UK universities compare with their treatment of undergraduate students presenting with mental health issues. Stories abound in the British press about underfunded and over-subscribed counselling services at prestigious universities where it can cost students as much as £22,200 per year to study.

Stanford University says it has behaved properly. But the case lays bare the conundrum universities face on both sides of the Atlantic with an international epidemic of students and young people dealing with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts — in responding to a broad array of mental health issues on campus.

It would seem that both American and the United Kingdom educational institutions make the same or similar mistakes. Both are accused of not intervening soon enough even when alerted of concerns by fellow students; waiting too long to notify parents when students are in trouble, or not notifying them at all. Others condemn institutions for writing off students too quickly to avoid lawsuits or bad publicity.

These problems are not going away any time soon. As it stands only half of the young college students in the US who are experiencing a mental health crisis seek official help largely due to the justified fear of stigma and negative consequences. It was reported that too often, universities respond to disability-related behaviour with exclusion, blame and draconian measures such as a forced leave of absence.

America is a more litigious society than the UK and the class action lawsuit against Stanford is the latest in a series of challenges to mental health leave policies, at prestigious institutions such as Princeton, Hunter College, Western Michigan University, and George Washington University.

Stanford’s own website says that a leave of absence may be encouraged or required for a student whose psychiatric, psychological or medical condition “jeopardises the life or safety of self or others, or whose actions significantly disrupt the activities of the university community.”

The cases before the court describe when one student who had an anxiety attack, another who was harming, and others who had suicidal thoughts or who had tried to kill themselves. Quoting the legal experts they say that under federal regulations, it is clear that students can be barred from campus if they pose a threat to others. However, there is less clarity if they pose a threat to themselves and not others.

“The law is unsettled,” said Karen Bower, a lawyer who has represented students suing universities for making them take mental health leaves. “‘Disruption’ is the new buzzword. Universities have claimed that students who use too many resources, inform friends of suicidal ideation or require wellness checks have all disrupted the campus or campus operations.”

The Stanford lawsuit says that students who were placed on leave were effectively banished from the university and stripped of their privacy and autonomy. Their own doctors were second-guessed by the university’s, the lawsuit says, and the students were required to immediately withdraw from all classes, programs and housing. To return to campus, they had to write personal statements “accepting blame” for their behaviour.

In the UK the number of students who disclosed a mental health condition almost doubled between 2012 and 2015 to nearly 45,000, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. In 2015 alone, a record 2,050 students with mental health problems dropped out of university. The number of suicides among full-time students in England and Wales has also tragically jumped – from 75 in 2007 to 134 in 2015.

Universities UK, the trade body for UK Universities has recently published new guidance to improve the link between the NHS and care provision at university, admitting that students moving from home to campus “may slip through the gaps in the health system, when they are most vulnerable”.
Unfortunately, gaps in the NHS health system, especially mental health are endemic across the whole country and students are at risk as much as any others sector of society.

While most universities now offer counselling support and train teaching and some auxiliary staff to spot signs of mental illness and have complex care packages in place, not all provide the same level of support. It’s worth would-be students taking a detailed look at what’s on offer.

University league tables do not as yet include a chart to measure pastoral services on offer but now that potential undergraduates are paying consumers they may be able to effect improvements in services or spend their education pound elsewhere else.

If you or a friend are struggling with mental health issues while you are studying it is crucial to be as pro-active as possible to secure the support you need through your institution. If you want to make contact with me the link is here on this page. Don’t stay isolated. Prioritise your mental well-being.





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