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‘​​I just felt like I had to sign the papers’: Brown community reflects on U. mental health, leave taking settlement after DOJ settlement

U. to pay $684,000 to students denied readmission following mental health medical leave from 2012 to 2017

By and
University News Editors
Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The University had previously removed the two-semester leave requirement and adjusted the readmission process as part of changes made to its medical leave policy in years preceding the settlement.

Vanessa Garcia ’19 ScM ’22 had a productive first semester of college when they started their freshman year in 2015. They found themselves to be hyper-productive and needed very little sleep to function during the day.

But, come second semester, they crashed. Garcia went into a low period of depression after a semester of hypomania. “I was exhibiting symptoms, but I didn’t know what treatment I needed and what I was supposed to be doing,” they said, and they felt “very lost.” In the week leading up to classes in January 2016, Garcia was taken to the hospital and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. A representative from the University was sent to meet them at the emergency room of the local hospital’s psychiatric ward.

While still in the emergency room, Garcia was given medical leave forms to fill out. “I was under so much pressure in so many different contexts that I just wasn’t sure if they were asking me if I wanted to go on leave or if this was the only option,” Garcia said. “But I just felt like I had to sign the papers.”

“It didn’t really seem like there was any other option,” they said.

Raising concerns

In an Aug. 10 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, the University was found to have violated the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act by denying readmission to certain students who had taken medical leaves of absence due to mental health concerns from fall 2012 to spring 2017. The settlement requires the University to compensate students wrongly denied readmission a total of $684,000 and revise its mental health-related medical leave-taking policies, The Herald previously reported.

After hearing the news surrounding the settlement, Yema Yang ’19, former chapter coordinator of Project Let’s Erase the Stigma, a grassroots mental health advocacy group founded in 2013 by Stefanie Kaufman ’17, said their “initial reaction was, ‘about damn time.’”

Despite what they called the University’s mistreatment of student mental health while they were enrolled, Yang felt that the University “was never held accountable for it, despite student advocacy,” they said. “I’m relieved in some ways to see that (the University) is seeing the consequences of its harmful actions.”

Throughout Yang’s time with Project LETS, the organization focused its advocacy efforts on the University’s policies surrounding mental health medical leave, Yang explained. Students reach out to the organization directly seeking support when they have to “jump through hoops” in a readmission system that, according to the DOJ, was rooted in discriminatory practices.

“Brown has a long history and a current history of abusing people with mental health conditions and the mentally ill and disabled community,” as seen its medical leavetaking process, said Shivani Nishar ’20, former chapter co-coordinator of Project LETS.

According to Nishar, the University’s current leavetaking policies for students with mental health concerns are “completely ridiculous,” as some students are still required to receive approval from Counseling and Psychological Services professionals in order to re-enroll, even if they have already received approval from external medical professionals.

This poses an “additional barrier,” she added, as “individual Brown students already have turbulent relationships” with CAPS. In addition, she said, part of the readmission process is proving students are able to “(do) other things” such as jobs or hobbies and talking about “why you had to leave for your mental health reasons, what you did to address those mental health concerns — which kind of makes it seem like people have to ‘recover’ from whatever they were going through, as if mental health and mental illness is not a chronic experience.” 

Yang added that Brown’s categorical denial of violating the ADA in the settlement “feels like protecting (Brown’s) reputation, and that’s what institutions tend to do. But in connection to student mental health at Brown, that’s on trend with the way it is,” Yang said. In their time at the University, “it would feel like (the University) would only care about student mental health for reasons of liability and protecting its reputation.”

The University has created its medical leave policies to “reflect our deep commitment to supporting students, including and especially in moments of challenge, as they work toward successful completion of their Brown degrees,” University Spokesperson Brian Clark wrote in an email to The Herald. “Mental and emotional well-being are significant factors in any student’s ability to flourish, and Brown has worked diligently to ensure a supportive experience for students who consider or take a medical leave of absence.”

The University has also been working with students to reimagine how to provide effective mental health care and improve services available through CAPS by “making care accessible, timely and customizable for each student seeking support, diversifying the CAPS team and more,” Clark added. 

Discrimination in readmission

Garcia went home to San Diego following their diagnosis and leave, where they started treatment and got a local job. “There reached a point where I knew I was ready to go back,” they said. 

So, Garcia began putting together the documentation outlined in emails they received from the University: letters from their therapist and doctor alongside a personal statement outlining how they had been dealing with their new diagnosis. 

After submitting their application for readmission for the fall 2016 semester, Garcia received a letter denying their request. They were not given reasons for the denial, leaving them no idea why the University denied their application. 

“​​It was really shocking in my case because I wasn’t struggling academically, I was really deeply involved in campus and honestly just had this diagnosis of bipolar disorder,” Garcia said. “That led me to wonder what exactly was the lever in which I was not pushing on to gain readmission.”

Garcia began the appeal process soon after receiving their rejection. They obtained an additional letter from their employer and rewrote their personal statement to emphasize their support system alongside reasons for their return that they wrote about in the original letter. 

“It felt like there was this huge disconnect between how I felt that I was doing and how (Brown was) perceiving me,” they added. 

After the appeal, Garcia was readmitted for the fall 2016 semester. “The denial sent me back more emotionally, because obviously I eventually did get (readmitted) in the time that I was planning to, but I wasn’t expecting to have to do an extra process or protocol,” Garcia said. 

While on leave, Garcia added that they only received general update emails from an administrator outlining deadlines and criteria to apply for readmission. There was no “encouragement” from the office to check in or communicate with them. “When (my application) got denied, I especially didn’t want to communicate with anyone in the office because I kind of felt a lot of anger and distrust with the system.”

Garcia was also concerned about the circumstances in which they left for leave, feeling that they were in some ways forced. “I was under a lot of duress at the time,” Garcia said. “What defines involuntary and voluntary when you have that context?”

“I always look back on this moment,” they added, “and wonder how much of it was a suggestion, and how much of it was them kind of really urging me to take leave.”

Clark wrote that due to federal student privacy law, he was unable to speak to specific student experiences. 

University policy changes

Since 2017, the University has gone through two sets of revisions to the medical leave taking process, said Timothy Shiner, senior associate dean of students and director of student support services. The University has also evolved “in smaller iterations” in between those bigger steps. 

The settlement “doesn’t quite capture some of the ongoing evolution of our process and the roots of it,” Shiner added. 

During the 2015-16 school year, there was a prevalence of student activism for disability justice, and the Student Support Services Office began to collect student feedback about the mental health leave taking system through focus groups and surveys of students who returned from leave. “When I started in this role in the summer of 2016, it was definitely one of the top priorities of the office,” Shiner said.

The University made the first revision to its medical leave policy in 2017, according to Shiner. This revision focused more on framing and semantics, but it did remove the two-semester leave requirement. “​​We wanted to reframe how we think of medical leaves and how we communicate about medical leaves in a way that felt more transparent, more compassionate and more student-centered.”

In January 2020, the University moved to a rolling review of applications for readmission from the previous process that had three set review periods. 

In the most recent revision, the University made it clear that students can return with any accommodations they may need and defined the readmission process more explicitly, Shiner added.

The University also wanted to help students feel less disconnected from the University during leaves. Now, the University reaches out to students once during each semester of their leave to check in. Students can also send in early drafts of their readmission applications for feedback and assistance. 

Student Support Services also created a blog for students to anonymously share their leavetaking experiences, and application decisions are sent by both email and physical mail as opposed to just a physical letter. 

The student feedback to these changes has been “very positive,” Shiner said. “It just feels much more student-focused.”

“Sometimes it’s a little more complicated than one student may see from their own personal experience, but we want to hear from students,” Shiner said. “We want to hear what they have to say. We want to hear how we can make it better.”

Leavetaking at the University today

Since the onset of the pandemic, students have opted to take leave for reasons ranging from mental health to travel restrictions to wanting to gain experiences outside of the classroom. For some, the process of taking and returning from leave has become more streamlined.

Grace Austen ’24, who took leave during the 2020-21 academic year, applied to take leave with the new opportunities posed by the looming 2020 presidential election in mind. But, despite not explicitly including it in her application, challenges she faced during the transition to remote learning made her reluctant to return to Brown for the fall 2020 semester.

“When we wrapped up classes in the spring, I just felt like I wasn’t really able to be focused, or it felt like I couldn’t be in my best learning environment,” Austen said. “I felt very isolated by the virtual experience.”

While she did not have mental health concerns specifically in mind while applying for leave, she found that her time away from the University was very supportive for her mental health needs.

“All that time I had to really independently think and reflect on the past year of college and just generally take that time for myself to reflect on mental health, which I hadn’t really done before,” she said. “I’m definitely grateful that I took the time off.”

As one of many students taking leave during the pandemic, Austen said that her experiences with University administrators was efficient and supportive. Still, in light of the DOJ investigation and settlement, Austen hopes that the University will be held accountable to continue creating a more supportive leavetaking experience for students that extends beyond the pandemic.

For Jing Jing Yang ’25, who has been on leave since fall 2020, previous experiences with the University made her wary of returning during the pandemic. Although she did not explicitly mention these experiences in her application to take leave, mental health concerns figured prominently in her decision to take leave.

“I had taken personal leave after going through quarantine and lockdown,” Jing Jing Yang said. Quarantining for several weeks and navigating travel restrictions “had a huge impact on just (my) anxiety in general, she added. “One of the reasons I chose not to go back was because I didn’t have a great experience with CAPS, so I wasn’t sure even if I went back that I would be getting a lot of support in terms of mental health.”

For Jing Jing Yang, the University’s previous shortcomings in supporting mental health mirror current student experiences with offices like CAPS, and the University as a whole, where students are not supported to the extent that she feels they could be.

Upon learning about the DOJ settlement, Garcia felt “relieved that there was an outside opinion that also felt that students were wrongly not being let back in,” they said. Going through an experience like theirs feels “isolating,” particularly when the University did not offer ways to connect with other students who faced similar struggles, Garcia said. 

The terms of the agreement are “sufficient for now,” Garcia added, but in the future, they hope to see greater public discussion of student mental health leave, including through events such as town halls.

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