Universities should let students with mental illnesses choose their fate


"Yale Law School in the Sterling Law Building" by Pradipta Mitra - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Howchou using CommonsHelper on Labs.. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Yale University forced student Rachel Williams to stop attending school due to a mental illnesses, even though she states that it is her main motivation.

Medina Jusufovic, Staff Writer

Some may say that students with mental illnesses have too much on their plate to be going to school. This is exactly what happened to Rachel Williams, a former student at Yale University, or so it seems.

When I first heard about this incident, I was outraged. I was angry that she was forced to leave solely because she was depressed. For those of you who haven’t heard of this story, Rachel Williams was a student at Yale University, and she was forced to withdrawal from the school because she was severely depressed and a harm to herself.  A year later, the university readmitted her. After researching the story, however, I started to understand what was actually going on. 

Williams was not technically “forced” to withdrawal, it was suggested. She was a harm to herself and with college being a major amount of stress, her psychiatrist thought it would be best for her to just go home. Now in Rachel’s mind, this situation may have looked different. She might not have understood that her doctor was only trying to help her.

Both Title I and Title III in the Americans with Disabilities Act state that colleges can dismiss students who pose a direct threat to themselves. After hearing about this issue, I decided to contact a few local colleges and see what policies they have for students with mental illnesses at their schools.

Keith Robinder, Associate Dean of Students at Iowa State University, said Iowa State does have a university-initiated withdrawal process where the student would be removed for being a direct threat to others or having a medical circumstance. “Generally speaking, in accordance with recent changes in the interpretation of federal guidelines we do not use this process to intervene in cases where a student may be suicidal,” Robinder said.

Robinder also talked about how when a student’s level of suicidal idealization becomes critical, it may be best for them to take some time off. “We work with students in this situation to help them exit the university with a clear path back when they regain the capacity to navigate the stress associated with higher education,” Robinder said. Overall, the decision is based on whatever is best for the student and the community around them. “In my experience, Iowa State has great resources and most students with mental illness on our campus are navigating the university experience successfully,” Robinder said.

 Lisa James, Associate Director for Clinical Outreach, and Angela Reams, the Assistant to the Dean for Student Care Initiatives, both from the University of Iowa said the university has similar policies. When talking about students with mental illnesses at the university, James and Reams both made it very clear that they work with students to do what is absolutely best for the student. “Sometimes college life can cause some flare-ups of problems where their symptoms would get more severe, and in those situations, we work closely with the campus support offices to make sure that student, and the other students on campus, are safe,” James said.

James went on to talk about how many students are able to do well when they are on medications and stabilized. “There would be a possibility that the student would be told they can’t be on campus, or that they have conditions under which they can be on campus- like only if they keep all of their psychiatrist appts with us, etc,” James said. “That is actually a pretty rare situation, I can only think of one in my 13 years here.”

Angela Reams also had a response to this issue. Reams said how what they decide to do depends on the actual situation. “Given my new role dedicated to student care and response to crises and emergencies, we are addressing mental health concerns, ideation, and attempts differently,” Reams said.

Reams went on to talk about how involuntary withdrawal was rarely used, if ever, in suicide situations. “We have moved away from using conduct with mental health, ideation, or attempts, and instead usually try to partner with students to create a care plan falling under my role and early intervention and once initiated, will also involve the On Call Dean Program,” Reams said. “We may work with students under their care plan including their family and physicians who choose to leave, but it is voluntary in order to obtain treatment and start fresh upon returning to campus.”

In cases where students may be suicidal, colleges should have the right to intervene without having to force involuntary withdrawal. Colleges should be able to work with a student through psychiatric care, so that the student can continue their education. A student should feel comfortable at school, and not feel forced to be happy just so they do not get kicked out of school. Schools should work specifically with the student’s situation, so that the student can continue to stay in school and also receive the help that the student needs.

I can see why her doctors would want to send her home. They want her to relax. They believed that she was a harm to herself, which she was, and they wanted her to leave for her own safety. I am not a psychiatrist, and I do not personally know Rachel Williams, but I would have tried to work a little harder with her in the psychiatric center so she could remain in school.

Rachel Williams should have been able to stay at Yale. In her story, she stated that school was her only motivation in the morning. Her doctors and the school did not give her a chance. Williams was stuck in a bad time in her life, and the last thing she wanted to do was to be forced to withdraw from school. Her doctors and the school should have worked around her situation, and should not have just sent her home. Sending her home should have been the last resort.

Although I do not know the specific facts, I only know what happened based on her letter to the editor, I think Rachel Williams should have been given more time to recover, and find the help that she needed. Williams states that she was admitted into the Yale New Haven hospital for only a few days before she was told she had to go home, and withdraw from the university with no guarentee of return. I believe that her psychiatrists and the school should have worked with her longer and given her a chance to fully recover, instead of just forcing her to go home.