It still happens: Involuntary Medical Leaves in Higher Education

Here is a post by a young woman who was put on an involuntary leave similar to what I went through about 7 years ago.

She does a much more eloquent job of explaining it than me. She also tells the story without a pseudonym and shares it with her school community. I really hope the best for her and that she is able to enact change.

A lot of why the involuntary leave has continued to haunt me so much is due to the terror it induced in me about the risk of it happening again. It created this giant ripple effect in my life with the measures I take to avoid letting it happen.

I hope that maybe for her, being open about the experience rather than hiding will minimize the long term damage. For me, I just can’t take the risk. Maybe 40 years from now if I get tenure somewhere and have loads of funding I’ll do a Marsha Linehan or Scott Barry Kaufman style reveal, but right now I will stay in hiding.

Maybe when I returned to the school that kicked me out I should have shared it with everyone. Perhaps I would have been better off if I had told everyone exactly what happened. Maybe also moved off campus to remove the school’s power over my living arrangements. Maybe I would be long over it if I have done that. I don’t know. All I know is that in this present moment it feels unsafe to share.

It’s a terrible situation that hiding is what makes it worse but not hiding could mean losing my ability to pursue my goals. I have no doubt that if I were not exerting so much effort to hide parts of myself my symptoms would be considerably lower. This is what mental health stigma does. It takes a bad situation and makes it worse. The vast majority of my therapy in some way or another always gets back to my belief (which was elevated to core belief status from the event) that if people know me fully I will lose things I care about.

I wish so strongly that someone somewhere would be able to create greater awareness for students of their rights in these situations. It’s clear that schools will continue to do this even though the government rules against the schools when complaints are filed through appropriate channels.

As much as I know that ruminating over the past is not constructive I wish I had known what my rights and options were at the time. I knew it felt unjust, but I didn’t know the right details. I didn’t know that I should have been provided information about appeal procedures. I didn’t know the specific laws that were being violated and which resources could help me. I think if at the time had known more about my rights that a quick call from a lawyer could have stopped the entire process.

I feel like the reason this persists is that at the time it occurs people are so vulnerable. I wasn’t clearheaded enough to do research on what to do. The hospital only even allowed me internet access for brief period each day. I didn’t have access to resources to look up my rights even if I had been capable of doing that research. My parents were well intentioned advocates who did their best to fight to keep me in the school, but their approach involved meeting with people who ignored their input. For all of my difficulties in my relationship with my mom, one of her highest priorities is to protect her kids. Her perseveration on topics, which often infuriates me, has at many times protected me when it has come to fighting battles to help me (For example I would probably never have gotten access to special education in 1st grade to help with my reading delay without her advocating). But persistance is useless when none of us knew what to do.

When it happened to me I was so taken my surprise. I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t even know it was something possible. It’s hard to fight a system while simultaneously fumbling to learn the rules. The decision to kick me out happened so fast. I think it was over less than 3 days.

One fear of mine is that I might someday get caught is a situation that could force me to do this same thing to someone else. At some point I will see patients of my own. I will be starting off with undergraduate students at my school. I have no idea of whether this is something done here, but given the high prevalence of schools making these decisions it is probable my school might do this same thing. As a PhD student I would be powerless to stop it. I’d be a cog in the system. More and more I start worrying not just about having this happen to me but what if I am forced to do this to someone else? I have more power to enact change from within a system but right now I don’t have any of the power yet.

It is terrible that this problem has not improved over the past 7 years and its occurrence is still not more common knowledge. People can’t have outrage about situations no one knows about. As long as higher education institutions continue to enact this process in relative obscurity, fostered by the shame victims of the procedure feel, I worry that this will continue to harm more and more people.

Please share this young woman’s post on whatever social media you use. She has done an excellent job of explaining the emotional consequences of these discriminatory procedures and I hope that increasing awareness can long term provide more tools to fight back.