Last Sunday, news broke that a sophomore at Princeton was suing the University for disability discrimination after it allegedly made him withdraw from school following a suicide attempt. The decision to essentially kick the student out of the school came after the student apparently took 20 pills of Trazodone, an antianxiety medication, before checking himself into the hospital.
Princeton has historically had a convoluted relationship with mental health. Last year marked the first Mental Health Week on campus, where various events about stress, depression and therapy — among other things — attempted to open up a dialogue on campus about this often taboo topic. Despite this, Princeton — along with some other Ivy League schools, including Brown and Yale — has faced criticism for having a harsh policy regarding suicide and depression. Essentially, if the mental health of a student approaches suicidal ideation, the student may be forced to withdraw.
In a case such as this one, the rationale behind kicking a student out for mental health issues can take one of two forms: to protect the school’s name or because it’s — according to the University — in the student’s best interest. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the school is doing this to save the student rather than its own reputation.
I’ve met quite a few people at Princeton thus far that, at one point in their academic careers, decided to voluntarily take time off. Usually it’s for a year, but sometimes it’s for a semester. The cited reasons span across the spectrum: health issues, financial burden, overwhelming stress, to work, to qualify for the Olympics. Taking time off of school once you’ve already begun is a big decision, but if it’s voluntary, it’s usually not too big of a deal. The student has weighed the pros and cons extensively and is making a decision that they feel is going to be best for them in the long run. As adults — young adults, but adults, nonetheless — we reserve the right to determine what is and what isn’t in our own best interest.
If, however, students are being forced to leave, they are being thrust into a decision without fully accepting all the nuances that come with it. For instance, they won’t be able to graduate on time with their peers. Any post-secondary education plans are further pushed back. They lose an entire semester’s worth of classes and work. Having to deal with this situation is in and of itself enough to spiral someone into a crippling depression.
Add, however, to this equation the fact that the reason the student is being kicked out in the first place is because of the crippling depression. Surely that will only exacerbate the problem and in the end be worse for the student. It’s easy to say that depression at college is spurred by any number of things we experience here at college: academic pressure, social pressure, homesickness, isolation, feelings of inadequacy. It’s easy to say that removing people from an environment particularly toxic to them should help them get better. If a student agrees, then by all means they should take a voluntary leave of absence. However, not all students see time off as a light at the end of the tunnel. The reason that this isn’t always the case is because the support system people build in college is usually comprised of their friends, classmates and roommates. Removing them from such an support system might be singlehandedly snipping away the one source of comfort they did have while they were struggling with their problems and would further exacerbate any feelings of isolation or helplessness, both very prominent symptoms of suicidality and depression.
Universities, when dealing with cases of suicidal or depressed students, should adopt a more student-centric policy. Efforts should be made to show students all the benefits of taking time off, but they should never feel as though they are being forced into it. If a student doesn’t want to leave, measures should be taken to accommodate them the same way measures are taken to accommodate a physical illness such as a sensory or physical handicap. Students should be allowed a lighter workload or be mandated therapy.
Princeton has made some important strides in mental health over the past few years, but this case in particular sheds light on a darker practice that needs some looking over. Students should be allowed to make decisions for themselves because sometimes, the alma mater just doesn’t know best.
Shruthi Deivasigamani is a sophomore from Cresskill, N.J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.