As Grey City reported earlier this quarter, the University of Chicago has one of the country’s most relaxed leave of absence (LOA) policies. This flexibility allows students greater freedom to complete their education on the timeline that best suits them, but some students who have left the school for mental health reasons felt ushered out when they left and unwelcome when they returned. While many of these students did feel that their leaves of absence were beneficial to them, the way the administration handled many of these cases points to a need for clearer communication between students and the University offices involved, which could be remedied with new guidelines regarding mental health leaves.
Some students suffering mental health issues felt forced to take leaves by the administration. Administrators’ handling of this process should not feel coercive, but in the best interest of the student. Given that these students are in times of mental and emotional duress, and therefore not always best equipped to deal with navigating the logistical details and timing of their own leave, the University should encourage students to have an advocate to assist them with meetings and correspondence regarding their leaves of absence. This advocate could be a parent, private doctor, resident head, academic adviser, or simply a good friend. While this is not a cure-all, having an ally to rely upon will help distressed students make the best decision for themselves, as well as improve communication with the administration.
Fourth-year Olivia Ortiz told Grey City that when she took a mandated mental health leave last spring, she had to move out of her dorm room in just a few days, and was given no information or guidance as to where she could stay while regaining her footing. While it is understandable that students are moved out of University housing when taking an LOA, care should be taken to ensure that the speed at which they are asked to do so is reasonable. Every case is different, but students taking sudden leaves should be given enough time to make plans for accommodations before being asked to move out.
Students have had issues in the past surrounding communication not only at the time of their leave, but also at the time of their returns. Recent graduate Natalie Jerkins (A.B. ’10), who took a leave of absence due to an eating disorder, told Grey City that the requirements for her return were unclear, and that the administration denied her request to return even after her private doctors vouched for her. The conditions for every student’s return should, at the time of her departure, be agreed upon by the student, relevant administrators, and the advocate. Although it is University policy that requirements for readmission are given to students in written form, the presence of an advocate ensures that these requirements are both mutually agreed upon and clear for all involved. Furthermore, the LOA policy necessitates that the requirements be in writing, but it says nothing about their specificity. It should be clearly delineated what is expected of the student and her caretakers before return to the University is permitted. This will ensure that students come back only when they are ready, and also help prevent the University from arbitrarily prohibiting students’ returns.
Clearly communicating the expectations and process leading up to taking an LOA can help improve University-wide attitudes toward mental health. These improvements to the LOA policy will make it clear that the administration prioritizes the well-being of the student above all. Students who are coping with mental health issues should not be deterred from taking a leave merely because the guidelines are unclear. It is our responsibility as a school to cultivate an environment that allows students to make the decisions that are best for them without having to worry about the policy ambiguities.
The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief and the Viewpoints Editors.