Boston University Mental Health Experts Publish Leave Guides
For about six years, the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation at Boston University has run a one-semester program for college students nationwide who are on leave from their institutions due to mental health issues. The program provides students with lessons in wellness strategies and has helped center faculty members better understand the needs of students in crisis or in social and academic difficulty.
Taking time off can be a beneficial experience and an opportunity for students to reset, said Dori Hutchinson, director of services at the center and clinical professor at the university’s Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. But all too often, students who take leave are abandoned by their college and expect to deal with the decision to leave, when they are not taking classes, and when and the best way to return, on their own, said Hutchinson. The policies put in place by colleges for leave are also inconsistent and can alienate students facing mental health crises, she said.
“All colleges know about the strong link between mental health and academic success,” said Hutchinson, who has worked at the center for almost 40 years. “There is a strong case for schools to do their best with time off. But many colleges view it as, ‘They are not here, so we don’t have to worry about them.’ “
Last week, the center, with support from the Ruderman Family Foundation, a Boston-based Jewish nonprofit that advocates for the inclusion of people with disabilities, released two guides – one for students and their families and one for administrators, faculty and staff – – on best practices for college absences. Guides attempt to fill a knowledge gap among students about their options when considering leave and how to put college officials ‘on the same page’ on how to support students and reduce the stigma surrounding leave, including policies that could penalize students with the health conditions, said Hutchinson, who is a contributing author of the guides.
“These thoughtful and sophisticated guides give students and their families the tools to navigate what can be a very difficult process,” Boston University President Robert Brown said in a press release. “We are grateful to the Ruderman Family Foundation for supporting the development of Guides and proud that as an institution we can play a leadership role in helping those struggling with mental health issues.
Although BU experts, students, and foundation officials began work on the guides before the coronavirus pandemic, their release comes at an opportune time; Students reported an increase in depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation due to the social isolation and uncertainty brought on by the pandemic. College administrators have also consistently identified student mental health as one of their top funding concerns and priorities and now say the problems have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
The pandemic prompted a new review of college voluntary leave policies as students demanded more leniency to accommodate those who virtually did not want to attend classes, faced food or housing insecurity due to the recession economy, or who had chosen to work full-time and take a semester or year while their campuses close. Students who choose these options are sometimes indirectly penalized by losing guaranteed housing, for example, or by being forced to start repaying their student loan, even if they intend to return to university.
Jay Ruderman, president of the foundation, said that as life on campus gets back to full swing, college officials need to re-examine how they support students with mental health issues, including how leave policies prohibit sometimes campus students after experiencing mental health crises. .
Ruderman and Sharon Shapiro, community liaison officer and foundation administrator, were drawn to the work of the Boston University program, which is called NITEO, the Latin word for “to flourish” or “to prosper,” and helps students on leave. . Hutchinson said the program focuses on building the resilience and well-being of students, including in their relationships, physical and emotional health, personal identity, and academic and professional goals so that they can return to university with effective strategies for completing their studies.
The foundation also published a white paper in 2018 that analyzed and criticized some of the leave policies of Ivy League colleges and universities, which the author says are sometimes used “as a tool of discrimination” against suffering students. mental disorders. Half of the institutions have banned students from visiting campus while on leave and included vague incidents of “community disruption” as a reason for ordering a student to take involuntary leave, even when a student is not a problem. threat to the safety of others, according to the paper.
“What drew us to the leave issue was the way students were being avoided,” Ruderman said. “You are at a very prestigious university, but now that you have a mental health problem, you have to leave the university, you are cut off from the university. Ultimately, this is a stigma issue, and universities have been ill-equipped to deal with it. Our hope with guides coming out of BU is that they will be studied by the academic community and adopted in the form that suits their higher education institution.
The guides, which were in part developed by former NITEO students, recommend administrators to make leave policies consistent for all students, whether for mental health reasons or for other reasons. The guides also encourage college leaders to develop support services, such as case management, coaching services, or support groups for students returning to college after taking leave. Policies should be “individualized” rather than “comprehensive” so that they can be adjusted to meet the specific needs of students, the guide says.
The guide for students offers a series of checklists and considerations before deciding to take time off, as well as tips on how to communicate the decision to family and friends. Hutchinson said the guides draw on input from students who have gone through the process themselves, such as David Mink, a student at Monroe Community College in upstate New York. It is a former student of NITEO who is now an intern for the program.
Mink attended Macalester College in Minnesota after graduating from high school in 2015 and in the spring of his freshman year, he suffered from anxiety and depression that made it difficult to attend classes and class assignments. He struggled to recognize his mental health issues and stopped seeking help. Mink “bounced back” from classes at Monroe for several years, his sanity soaring, until he enrolled in the NITEO program in 2019.
“I hadn’t realized and accepted the fact that I had anxiety and depression,” Mink said. “What I had in mind for what people were anxious about and what depressed people were didn’t mesh with how I saw myself. I didn’t really know how to change direction, ”he said, adding that the NITEO program“ was the change of direction I needed. “
The hardest part about taking time off was that Mink felt alone in his decision and like he had failed. By sharing resources, such as guidelines for students considering or taking time off, college officials are providing students with a roadmap to follow, rather than letting them manage the process on their own, Mink said.
“The manual is a good starting point for administrators and teachers,” he said. “If some parts of it aren’t as applicable to this college, then that’s fine – put them aside in favor of other parts of the textbook. There will never be an exact rulebook. It’s just about finding the tips that work and making the tips work for you. “