Listed below is an in-depth article from Michelle Del Rey of the Times Union exploring the school mental health policy at RPI.
From our perspective, we are not familiar with the specifics of RPI and their mental health policies so we cannot speak to that concern. However,
MHANYS comments in the article are about the importance of engagement with a mental health professional when someone is facing a crisis situation such as thoughts of suicide or self-harm. There are many additional concerns we have about college mental health policies such as parity with physical health care, stigma of mental health issues, need for more linkages between counseling centers and community organizations and not enough funding for mental health counseling centers on college campuses.
In January, MHANYS will be releasing a White Paper detailing concerns we have about mental health in colleges as well as opportunities to create some public policy solutions.
Former RPI students say school’s mental health policies are harmful.
TROY — It was after midnight, and 18-year-old Maeve Tucker was with a friend in her dorm room five years ago at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, reeling in the depths of her depression. She had just told the person about her recent suicide attempt. Tucker had tried to hang herself by attaching a belt to her bed frame, then wrapping it around her neck. Having dealt with depression since high school, her symptoms had only continued to worsen. That year at RPI, she contemplated suicide more and more frequently. Following the revelation, Tucker’s friend gave her an ultimatum: She could either voluntarily check herself into a local hospital, or he would call for help in an effort to have her admitted for treatment. Tucker had sought aid at the university’s counseling center before the attempt. The services, she said, were ineffective. She said that counselor tried to pin her depression on her bisexuality and academic stress, which were not the causes. Her friend’s recommendation seemed like a final hope, so the freshman went willingly, riding in a university ambulance to Samaritan Hospital, just down the hill from campus. She notified school officials that she would be taking time off to concentrate on her mental well-being. The stay in the hospital’s psychiatric ward lasted two weeks. Once Tucker was discharged, she went back to RPI. On the second day of her return, her mother, Diane Tucker, called her with alarming news from the university: She wasn’t allowed to return to campus. “I was too much of a liability,” Tucker, now 24, said as she recounted the incident in a recent interview. Public safety officers had shown up at her dorm to escort her off school property. She hid out in a professor’s office until she heard back from her mother, who had come to Troy from Port St. Lucie, Fla., to be closer to her daughter during the ordeal. Current students that spoke under the condition of anonymity said these types of troubling accounts haunt the halls of RPI and have left some of them fearful of seeking help at the counseling center, worried that revealing too much about their personal struggles might put their academic careers in jeopardy. Two former RPI students spoke about their experiences being placed on voluntary or involuntary mental health leaves of absence. Tucker said she didn’t officially take a mental health leave of absence. As Tucker hid on campus that day, her mother contacted RPI officials, advocating for her daughter. Within an hour, Diane Tucker called Maeve, letting her know she could stay after her mother agreed to be responsible for her until the school’s counseling center authorized her return. Based on that agreement, she could continue attending class and go back to her dorm. She graduated in 2019 with a degree in civil engineering.
A common tactic
“In a college setting, when you have a situation like this, even if it’s one or two people, the information spreads,” said Glenn Liebman, CEO of the Mental Health Association in New York State, referring to the culture involuntary leave policies create. “And if you’re in a position where you are contemplating suicide or some serious self-harm, and you don’t have the ability to talk about that with a counselor because of fear of being put on an involuntary leave, then that’s an awful situation.”
Further compounding the problem, researchers at Fordham University in the Bronx, Wayne State University in Detroit and UCLA found that suicide had become the second-leading cause of death for college students at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The practice of placing students on involuntary leave is commonplace at universities across the country. All Ivy League schools except Brown University have mandatory or involuntary leave of absence policies. A university grants a voluntary leave of absence when a student makes the choice to willingly take time away from their studies; involuntary leave is used when a university deems a student to be a threat to themselves or those around them. At RPI, a leave is imposed by university officials if a student “exhibits behavior which creates, continues or presents a risk of harm to the physical or mental health of the student concerned or to others or which threatens serious disruption to Institute operations, programs, activities and potential damage to Institute facilities or property,” according to the student handbook. When asked for official figures on the number of students that have been placed on voluntary or involuntary leaves over a five-year period, Dr. Leslie Lawrence, executive director of the school’s student health and wellness program, said RPI could not release those numbers but stressed that the university “almost never” imposes involuntary leaves. Multiple current and former students spoke to the Times Union about their experiences seeking treatment at the university’s counseling center, explaining that they felt they received inadequate care, were belittled, dismissed by staff or that the center was ill-equipped to deal with their problems. Among those interviewed were survivors of child sex abuse and students with autism. In a written statement, Lawrence said that about 95 percent of students indicated in a recent survey that they were satisfied or highly satisfied with counseling center services. He denied a request to provide a copy of the survey, saying it contained personal information and sharing it could violate the privacy provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. RPI, Lawrence said in a statement, “is committed to providing each and every one of our students with the individual support they need for a successful experience. … The core mission of counseling services is to support and promote the mental health and well-being of our students.”
Founded in 1824, RPI has grown to become one of the nation’s most competitive technological research universities. Fifty-five percent of its class of 2024 graduated in the academic top 10 percent at their high schools. The estimated cost per year of attendance, including room and board, books and personal supplies, is $77,763. In recent years, some students who felt discriminated against as a result of mental health and counseling policies have sued their universities. Quinnipiac and Stanford both settled lawsuits related to their handling of mental health cases within the past 10 years. The civil complaints in those cases accused the institutions of violating Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against people with physical and mental issues. The Quinnipiac case hinged on alleged inadequacies with the school’s mental health services, arguing the school failed to make reasonable modifications to policies and procedures when it placed a student on an involuntary leave of absence without considering other options for their continued enrollment. Alternatives are required to be considered under federal law. The case against Stanford, filed in 2018 by Disability Rights Advocates on behalf of a coalition of students, alleged that the university discriminated against them due to their mental health disabilities. According to the lawsuit, the university placed them on involuntary leaves without considering other options and subsequently barred them from student housing. The case, settled in 2019, led Stanford to revise its involuntary leave of absence policy and add training for staff to support students facing mental health crises. The students didn’t seek monetary damages, only that the university pay their attorneys’ fees, which totaled $495,000.
Stuart Seaborn, one of the attorneys who brought the lawsuit, reviewed RPI’s handbook of student rights and responsibilities along with other experts at Disability Rights Advocates. They said the document raises concerns. RPI has two separate leave of absence policies: involuntary leaves and withdrawals and leave of absence after significant physical emotional trauma or illness. Seaborn said the latter could unduly target mental health disabilities. Neither policy explicitly lists accommodations that will be made for students before they’re forced to take a leave, when they’re returning from one, or specific restrictions that could impede a continuation of their studies.
In 2019, Ethan Frechtman, 24, graduated from RPI with a degree in mathematics. But a year prior, he said he suffered a panic attack and came close to attempting suicide. He had been feeling depressed for a while, Frechtman said. He stopped paying attention to his schoolwork, skipping one test and two quizzes, which is considered abnormal behavior for an RPI student. Frechtman met with a school psychiatrist to review his symptoms and the person suggested he take a mental health leave of absence. After discussing the recommendation with his father, he agreed to take the time off. Frechtman said no other options were presented to him. Preferably, he said, “I would have loved it if they would have worked with me and allowed me to make up the work I had missed in a timely manner. “But they basically told me that there was no way I was going to be able to make it up, and so the best option would be the voluntary leave,” he said. The plan was that he would return sometime in the next semester or the following year. Away from university, Frechtman worked at an automotive shop in the morning and a grocery store at night. Because his financial aid was revoked when he took the leave, he owed RPI around $3,500. He understood that he needed to be readmitted to the university. Once he was ready, officials said he could return to campus without issue. That didn’t happen. When Frechtman reapplied, RPI officials told him that his previous suicidal idealization made him too much of a risk for readmission. He’d need to see a mental health professional for six months and be certified “mentally fit” to come back, Frechtman said. A year passed before he set foot on RPI’s campus again. “They did not make you feel good about yourself,” he said. “To be told that you could just come right back as soon as you took the time you needed, and then for me to be met with so much resistance. … I’m definitely not the only person to go through stuff like this. It’s not a secret that RPI has been really lacking in terms of understanding and treatment of mental health and their students.”
Forced to leave
His story is similar to that of Brandy Opondo. Last December, the Southern California native braced herself for an upstate winter and an uphill battle against depression. She’d become increasingly suicidal and put together plans to end her life. The sophomore neuroscience student had grappled with major depressive disorder from the age of 17. She’d never seen a therapist, and in a last-ditch effort to get help scheduled a session with RPI’s counseling center. The counselor later recommended a psychiatric stay at Samaritan Hospital, Opondo said. Initially, she was hesitant: “I’d heard stories of people going to Samaritan and never coming back.” The counselor put Opondo at ease, assuring her that she could return to RPI following treatment at the hospital. Opondo became a patient at Samaritan’s psychiatric ward in June, months after her first session at the counseling center. By then, her symptoms had worsened. She didn’t believe she could keep herself safe from a suicide attempt. She spent 10 days being treated at the hospital. The night before her discharge, a social worker assigned to her case notified her that RPI had placed her on an involuntary leave of absence, banning her from campus.
Both Opondo and her social worker tried to persuade RPI officials to change the decision, but their pleas went ignored. Opondo said she was being forced leave the university unwillingly, for up to two semesters. She opted to withdraw from RPI altogether. University officials picked Opondo up from the hospital and drove her to her dorm to gather her belongings. She boarded a flight to California the next day. She now attends Saint Mary’s College of California in the San Francisco Bay Area. There, she said, university officials are more supportive of her mental health. Wanting to warn students of her experience, she authored a Reddit thread describing what she had gone through. It gained traction, and she later wrote an op-ed for RPI’s student newspaper, The Polytechnic, titled “The sin of mental illness.” She wrote: “While I cannot promise that I will be the last RPI student to struggle with suicidal ideation, or that I will be the last RPI student to need mental health help, I can promise that I will be one of the last to ask for help from the counseling center.”