When a person is in the midst of dealing with a serious mental health problem, sometimes going to school and caring for themselves can be too much to handle. It's important to know what options are available to make becoming mentally healthy again a top priority--this may mean needing to leave school for a while, or taking a Leave of Absence.
What is a Leave of Absence?
A Leave of Absence is a period of time when a student is not enrolled in classes but typically intends to reenroll. Because colleges understand that other things may come up for students, there are procedures that allow them time away when needed. Reasons can include studying abroad, medical conditions, death in the family, or other emergencies. They can last anywhere from a few weeks to a few years. In terms of Leaves related to mental health, schools have different policies and procedures depending on the circumstances. They can be considered Leaves of Absence, Medical Leaves of Absence, Emergency Leaves, or, in some cases, involuntary Leaves of Absence.
When should I consider a Leave of Absence?
You may consider a Leave of Absence if:
- Your mental health is disrupting your ability to participate in academic and campus life, even with supports and accommodations.
- You feel you are in crisis or that your level of distress is becoming intolerable.
- You believe the stress and pressure of college is seriously disrupting your ability to focus on recovery.
- You feel you need an increased level of care.
- You are not able to access the services you need at your college or university.
- You feel that time away from classes would be beneficial for your long-term wellbeing.
How will taking a Leave of Absence affect me?
It depends. Often, students who believe the stress or environment at their school has been harmful to their mental health and/or believe they would benefit from time away will take a Leave of Absence. This time allows them to focus their energy and efforts on recovery and self-care so that they will be better able to participate and enjoy campus life when they return. Many who take Leaves of Absence report the time was useful and, although it may have been a difficult decision, helped them in the long-term.
While this option can be very helpful for some, not all students feel it is best to take a complete Leave of Absence. For some, the option of returning home might present different challenges, and they may feel more comfortable in a school setting. You may be able to work and discuss other options with your school. This includes accommodations from professors, dropping specific classes, and becoming a part-time student. These options can give you space to get help and focus on recovery, while continuing to take classes. It is important to discuss your options with your treatment team, support system, and school to find what works best for you.
Your mental health comes first, but it is important to find out any procedural and financial information you may need from your university. You should find out the process for before, during, and after your Leave, as there may be important paperwork, deadlines, and conditions you must satisfy before you may return. Additionally, if you receive financial aid, you should ask how it may impact your awards package. For example, some Financial Aid packages may require you to be enrolled full-time or may have specific documentation that you will need to provide explaining your changes in enrollment. Only your school will be able to provide you with this specific information, and it is important to keep a record of it. Contacting the Dean of Student’s Office is a good place to start. Some important questions to ask include: What are my options? What are the specific requirements and documentation that I will need to file and when are the deadlines? How will this impact my financial aid? Are there any requirements that I must satisfy during my Leave? Will I need to reapply to the college?
What are my rights?
Students with disabilities, including those related to mental health, have a right to reasonable accommodations relative to their disability. This includes extra time on exams or assignments, the ability to withdraw from specific classes, and leaves of absence. Often, you will have to work with your school’s disability service coordinator and will likely need to provide documentation about your disability and how it affects your schoolwork. You can find more information about your rights, particularly surrounding involuntary leaves of absence, from the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law’s Campus Mental Health Know Your Rights (pdf) and Disability Rights North Carolina’s Your Rights in College: Students with Mental Health Impairments (pdf).
In recent years, there has been increasing news coverage of colleges and universities mishandling student mental health, and many student and advocacy groups are working to end this discriminatory behavior. There is a growing conversation on the roles of universities in supporting students with mental health disorders. Because practices and policies vary, it is best to contact your Dean of Students or Disability Service Coordinator in order to find out about the specifics at your college or university.
Where do I start?
Reach out for help
Let those around you know you are struggling. While talking about your mental health can feel scary, a trusted friend, family member, or advisor can support you and help you determine the best course of action moving forward, including aiding you in searching for providers, discussing your best options, and simply being there to listen.
Reach out to your university
Reach out to those who can help you on campus. This typically includes academic advisors, Deans of students, professors, counseling centers, and disability support services. You can search your school’s website or call your academic advisor to find the best people to talk to. Find out what services are available to you, like on-campus counseling and class schedule modifications.
Discuss your options
Ask those involved about different options for your recovery plan. This can include family members, friends, trusted advisors, school officials, and treatment providers. Review any potential changes to your current and future enrollment status. This could be extensions of assignments, taking an Incomplete for certain classes so that you may finish the work after the semester ends, dropping classes, going part-time, or taking some time away from school completely. Only you, with the help and guidance of those around you, know what is best when it comes to your recovery.
Make and formalize a plan
After deciding on a treatment plan and any changes in your roles at school, you should make a formal plan for moving forward. Some colleges and universities have specific dates and policies regarding Leaves of Absence and disability accommodations. They might require you to provide certain documentation or satisfy certain requirements before you can return as a full-time student. These can be found by searching your school’s website, but you should also get written confirmation from school officials so that you can have the documentation when you are ready to return.
Focus on recovery
College can be an amazing time for personal growth, learning, and building relationships. For many students, it can also be a time of high-stress and increased mental health struggles. In order for you to have the best experience possible, it is important to take the time you need to focus on yourself and your mental health.