Beyond Yale and Stanford, Colleges are Dropping the Ball on Student Mental HealthRoundup
tags: mental health, disability, colleges and universities, Campus Life, Student Services
David M. Perry is a journalist, historian and co-author of The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe. He is the Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies in the history department of the University of Minnesota.
When I went to college in the early 1990s, I received many important orientations around drugs, alcohol, consent, safe sex and belonging to an inclusive community when it came to race and sexual orientation. But the only conversation about mental health and school that I can remember was a joke – really an urban legend, because it’s neither true nor funny – that if your roommate committed suicide then the school would give you straight As.
We’re doing better today, I think, but not well enough either from the standpoint of caring for our students with mental health disabilities. There are many who agree, and they are taking that argument to court.
Among them is the family of Stanford University student-athlete Katie Meyer, who in August 2021 allegedly poured hot coffee on another student who had allegedly sexually assaulted one of Meyer’s soccer teammates. Six months later, Stanford sent her an email informing her of an impending disciplinary action that spelled out the potential consequences. Meyer took her life that evening. According to a lawsuit recently filed by the family alleging negligence by the school, Meyer received the email alone in her room and “suffer[ed] an acute stress reaction that impulsively led to her suicide.” Stanford disputes the allegations, detailing the supports it offered her.
On the other side of the country, a group of current students at Yale University have filed their own lawsuit contending that Yale systematically discriminates against students with mental health disabilities by pressuring students in crisis to take a “voluntary” leave of absence and get out of student housing within 48 hours of showing active symptoms. If they don’t leave on their own, the lawsuit says, Yale officials threaten them with an involuntary suspension.
For many students, being removed from campus separates them from the support networks they might need most at a period when they are extremely vulnerable. The lawsuit also alleges that removal is a violation of the civil rights laws protecting students with disabilities. Yale’s president noted in a letter to the Yale community that 100% of suspended students are reinstated by their third request and that policies are being reviewed as the school “seek(s) effective ways to ease the process for students taking a medical withdrawal and being reinstated.”
I’m always hesitant to draw too much from high-profile anecdotes at elite coastal universities; only about 15% of American college students even live on college campuses, and of those who do, most aren’t at places like Yale. Elite universities draw from a very narrow slice of American society and there’s been a media tendency to generalize about campus culture, curriculum and more by drawing on anecdotes from elite schools. I’m here in the middle of the country at a big public university. Yale and its problems and its $44 billion dollar endowment feel so far away.
But I have mental health disabilities of my own, and I work with college students. I see the rising pressures they face and their consequences in the classroom. Given what I see and hear every day and what I’ve experienced firsthand, I fear that these higher-profile stories from Stanford and Yale are just the tip of the iceberg, a tiny visible sliver of an immense problem across higher education. Essentially, though both institutions have denied this characterization, schools like Yale are using fear of an incident like the suicide at Stanford as a reason to push mentally disabled students off campus as quickly as possible.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health matters, please call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or visit the hotline’s website.
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