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Princeton holds dialogues on mental health following lawsuit, op-eds

Following a lawsuit and an outpour of op-eds in The Daily Princetonian, University mental health policy has been at the forefront of campus conversation, prompting administrators to hold dialogues to hear students’ concerns and, in some, cases consider reform.

In March, a student filed a lawsuit in federal court against the University alleging that it had engaged in discrimination when handling a case of attempted suicide.

In April, a student published an anonymous op-ed in The Daily Princetonian criticizing the administration’s practice of demanding detailed medical records from students who have taken time off for mental health reasons.

“If I ever want to return to Princeton as a student, I will have to ‘voluntarily’ waive my right to doctor-patient confidentiality by signing … two forms,” the student wrote. “And the policy that apparently allowed you to ban one student from campus until he was forced to withdraw (despite the abundant support of his psychiatrist and professors) is gravely dangerous because it dissuades those who need help from ever reaching out.”

The anonymous op-ed included a copy of a letter sent by University administrators detailing the procedure for reenrollment. Among the requirements was signing waivers to allow Counseling and Psychological Services officials to discuss the student’s case with administrators.

The University is reconsidering the language of letters sent to students who are taking time off due to mental health reasons, Executive Director of University Health Services John Kolligian, Jr. said at a dialogue held with students following the publication of the letter. The goal is to make students feel more welcome, he added.

Another op-ed said the University did a better job at preparing its students intellectually than emotionally.

“The institution needs to do some serious rethinking of how it writes and publicizes its policies and how it spends its budget on mental health resources,” columnist Lauren Davis wrote in one such column.

Following the abundance of campus interest in mental health, University administrators and USG held a pair of dialogues with the University community to discuss University mental health practices and policy.

Dean of Undergraduate Students Kathleen Deignan told students that approximately 35 students take a leave of absence from the University for mental health reasons, of whom three to five are withdrawn involuntarily.

In addition, CPS director Calvin Chin said his office does not share information automatically with the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students.

Rather, CPS evaluates a student at ODUS’ request if ODUS has received information that concerns it, Chin said, adding that CPS only shares general information with ODUS and not the substance of a conversation.

CPS evaluations are usually requested by ODUS not with the goal of promoting leave but with the goal of helping a student in making his or her choice, Deignan said, noting, however, that most students do follow through with the ODUS recommendation for leave when it is made.

Multiple students suggested including a CPS component to the mandatory programming in freshman orientation similar to the Department of Public Safety’s presentation to reduce stigma. One student suggested that it needs to be made more clear that health is a priority at the University, even if it conflicts with assignments or other obligations.

The University will upgrade the UHS website this year so that students can sort therapists by areas of expertise, Kolligian said, adding that the change is “way overdue.”

At the second dialogue, U-Councilor Zhan Okuda-Lim ’15 noted that a 2007 Princeton Alumni Weekly article appeared to suggest that CPS maintained a “watch list” of students of concern that it shared on a monthly basis with ODUS, but Kolligian said this was not the case and that administrators may not have been choosing their words as carefully in the wake of the shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

The majority of students brought to the attention of ODUS by students or staff do not leave the University community, and the primary role of ODUS is getting students to take CPS treatment recommendations seriously, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students Michael Olin said.

Most students who express suicidal thoughts to CPS or are hospitalized for a suicide attempt or other mental health reasons do not withdraw and are instead treated by CPS or another provider, Chin said.

In response to a recent anonymous guest op-ed in the ‘Prince,’ Olin said he recognized that the treatment provider forms being sent by the student’s director of student life created the mistaken impression that ODUS administrators or the residential colleges are involved in evaluating the opinions of students’ outside therapists. The treatment provider form is part of the readmission application. Only CPS sees the treatment provider forms, he said, and the University is considering reworking the process of sending out the letter.

The “Questions for Treatment Providers Form,” which is four pages long, asks for detailed information about the treatment given to students. Among the questions asked are a list of medicines prescribed, the “focus and type of treatment” provided, the extent to which the student complied with treatment and an evaluation of the student’s readiness to return to school.

Only two students in the past 10 years were denied readmission to the University for safety reasons, Olin said.

Chin added that CPS was going to restart the Princeton Depression Awareness Program next year to provide a support group for friends of people struggling with mental illness, that he was going to hold office hours to discuss mental health issues and policies with students and that CPS will be posting frequently asked questions on its website over the summer.

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