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Newlon '14.5: A pattern of prejudice


Imagine that during the course of your sophomore year, you experience an episode of multiple sclerosis so severe that you take a medical leave from Brown. Your doctor places you on medication and pronounces you ready to return to school at the beginning of the next semester. But Brown won't let you come back. You're informed that Brown's medical leave policy requires you to remain out of school for two full semesters before you can return, regardless of what your doctor says.

Fortunately this isn't generally Brown's practice for students with physical problems. While the "official" policy  states that students cannot return until two full semesters have elapsed, students with physical conditions can usually come back as soon as their physician deems it appropriate.

But what if the illness is psychiatric?

Medical leaves are intended to allow students sufficient time to recover from their illness, physical or mental. These leaves are often involuntary, though, leading students at many universities to protest rather than praise the policy. Virtually all universities institute forced medical leave if a student appears to endanger himself or others. Once on leave, a student can submit an application for readmission, typically consisting of a physician recommendation and a personal statement.

Yet readmission to Brown has a catch: A medical leave must last for two full semesters. The policy is generally enforced for leaves taken due to psychiatric problems, but often not for physical illnesses. Yale has a similar distinction in the enforcement of their policy, requiring students with mental illness to take leave for a full year.

Brown enforces the two-semester minimum inflexibly when a student leaves for psychiatric reasons, often regardless of what the treating physician recommends. Undoubtedly, an extended medical leave is beneficial for some psychiatric patients, but who is in a better position to judge a student's readiness to return to college than the student's doctor?

Apparently, in cases of physical ailments, Brown accepts medical opinions. But the opinion of a mental health professional is disregarded.

Brown's medical leave policies have stirred controversy in the past. In a 2010 article, a Herald reporter interviewed three students - two taking leave for mental health reasons, and one for multiple sclerosis ("Psychological leave-takers miss U. contact," Sept. 27, 2010). The student with multiple sclerosis was allowed by Brown to take a "personal leave" rather than a "medical leave." The two students with mental health issues were forced to take medical leaves. The difference? A personal leave has no time-length requirement, unlike a medical leave.

"The dean didn't see any reason to put it down as a medical leave," one student said.

This disparity in treatment illustrates Brown's discriminatory attitude toward those who suffer from mental illness. In our society, mental health problems still carry a stigma, and Brown's practices seem to disappointingly perpetuate prejudicial attitudes.

Belinda Johnson, director of psychological services at the University, has a different take. "The situation that arises is that as an institution we are trying to support students," she said in the article. "It doesn't come from a place of rigidity."

Yet, where is the evidence that enforced extended periods away from school benefit students with mental conditions? Short-term treatment, like cognitive behavioral therapy and adjustment to medication, is often effective in dealing with episodes of many mental health problems. Yes, people with chronic depression, bipolar disorder or an eating disorder can relapse - but so too can a student with multiple sclerosis. The University has shown no clinical evidence that extended enforced idleness alleviates these conditions. Common sense would suggest that imposed separation from friends, peers and vibrant college life could harm rather than help.

Ironically, the enforcement of Brown's medical leave policy seems designed to promote anxiety and uncertainty. Medical leave takers receive little communication from Brown during their time away. The readmission process is long and uncertain, and decisions are received less than two months before the semester begins. Students who attempt to complete additional coursework at a different university receive little Brown credit, due to Brown's inflexible course transfer policies. They are also not permitted to pursue study abroad programs until they have returned to Brown for one semester. These onerous policies undermine attempts to pursue productive or educational activities during the leave.

Perhaps the University administration is concerned about liability if a student with a mental condition harms him or herself. But this begs the question: What is Brown's mission - to protect the institution and its administrators or to help its students?

Medical leaves undoubtedly allow students to recover from serious illness, mental or physical. But readmission policies should be equitably enforced for all illnesses. Furthermore, the mandatory two semester policy, which few other schools have in writing, is gratuitous and irrational. Brown prides itself on its acceptance of all peoples, including those with mental illness. In this case, the University's practices contradict its rhetoric.



Cara Newlon '14.5 is a psychology concentrator.



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