A look at Central Michigan University's disregard for students battling mental illness

7:07 AM College Lawyer Blog 0 Comments

Wednesday, 8/10/16

Mental health has an indisputable roll in a college student's classroom performance. A student with a positive disposition is destined to make strides in their collegiate career. Not only are they likely to experience academic triumph, but they are also likely to perceive their academic hiccups as learning experiences.  Those with keen mental health are able to take their frustrations and failures as fuel to push themselves to improve each and every day. On the contrary, those struggling with their mental health, with illnesses such as anxiety and/or depression, are at an automatic disadvantage. Although not all who struggle with mental health are stymied by their issues, there are a number of students whose potentials are weighed down by their illnesses.  

With that being said, a majority of colleges and universities provide exceptional mental health facilities and counseling services for their students. In particular, Central Michigan University, in their Counseling and Mental Health Services brochure, states that their "primary mission is to provide a quality education for its students. This includes a commitment to assist students in adjusting to college life and reaching their full and academic potential." The brochure also includes Central Michigan's recognition of both past and present physical, emotional, and sexual abuse as factors on mental health. 

Nevertheless, in investigating Central Michigan University's actual commitment, specifically, to students struggling with mental health issues, to fulfilling their mission to provide a quality education for their students, aid in their adjustment to collegiate life, and, most importantly, assisting those students in reaching "their full personal and academic potential," I came across some disturbing stories two of which I am about to share.

Before continuing, I must applaud the individuals who are allowing me to share their stories in the hopes that it promotes change in the way Central Michigan University deals with students who are battling mental health issues. It is not easy to open up, let alone disregard the absolute rational fear of judgement and come face to face with the unavoidable feeling of vulnerability that accompanies sharing your story. Therefore, as a writer, I am committed to the anonymity of these two students. Furthermore, the promise of anonymity comes at the expense of detail, albeit a lack of detail should not mask Central Michigan University's complete disregard for mental illness.

The first story tells the tale of a student that sought help in all the right ways and was failed. It shows a student that refused to suffer in silence but found herself silenced by a university who refused to assist her in reaching her potentials. It begins with a girl that was ecstatic to become a Chippewa. She explained that when looking at her future and when thinking about college, she "actually pictured" herself "as a Central Michigan student". In fact, she trusted that Central Michigan University would equip her with the proper tools to propel her toward her goal of becoming a school teacher. Like most individuals aspiring to meet their goals, she allowed very little to stand in her way not even the dysthymia (chronic depression) that she had been battling since before her diagnosis at eleven years old. 

Unfortunately, the transition to college life can be difficult, even more so for someone struggling with depression. For the first time, many students are on their own, leaving behind the support systems they built at home. For this young woman, a positive transition was barred by roommate problems. Aware that those problems were having an effect on her mental health, she spoke with her Resident Assistant, the first resource suggested for struggling on-campus residents by CMU's Counseling and Mental Health Services brochure. To her dismay, seeking her RA for assistance did not provide a solution. The problems with her roommates continued to escalate to the point that she could barely stand being in her own room; the place she was to call a home away from home, a place of refuge. Eventually, her issues were brought to the attention of her Residence Hall Director, who, after not responding to her for two weeks, told the young woman that she was unable to change rooms and that there was nothing more the University could do to help her; she would have to make the best of an unpleasant situation. To no surprise, she began to feel helpless and lonesome.

As if those feelings were not enough to feed her depression, things would worsen. Following an alleged sexual assault at the university, her depression grew to the point of debilitation. "I couldn't get out of bed to go to class," she detailed. Correspondingly, her grades dropped and she was placed on academic probation. Realizing that her dreams were at stake, she met with a mental health professional at CMU, hoping that speaking with a counselor would be the therapeutic outlet that she was desperate to find. Sadly, Central Michigan limited her "free counseling" to a mere two sessions, which provided her with nowhere near the support she needed. She described her frustration, how the lack of adequate resources left her feeling even more helpless than before. Inevitably, she received a notice of academic dismissal due to her poor academic standing. 

Still fueled by the pursuit of becoming a teacher, this young woman found light in her dismissal. At the end of the notice existed an opportunity for dismissed students to apply for an interview that would allow them to provide the extenuating circumstances that led to their poor academic standing. Exceptions to Central Michigan's re-matriculation policy (students under academic dismissal must wait at least one year before reapplying) would be granted under "acceptable" extenuating circumstances. They were provided as follows: 

 "1. Personal illness or accident: Provide doctor or hospital validation that you missed a significant number of classes due to serious illness or as the result of an accident. Provide proof of recovery.
2. Death in family: Provide doctor's note, death notice, or a copy of a certificate of death for an immediate family member (father, mother, brother, sister, spouse, child). Provide proof of the ability to cope.
3. Personal/family problems: Personal or family problems which where serious enough to affect your academic career must be documented by a counselor, physician, lawyer, or other appropriate source. Provide proof of recovery. At least 6 months of recovery is required." 

She entered her interview confident that her dream school would side with her. She was suffering from a personal illness, a mental illness, one that had been documented for almost a decade. How could it be disregarded? She explained how her roommate issues, issues that had been brought to the attention of her RA and RHD, had impacted her. She explained how after her alleged sexual assault, she sought treatment at Central Michigan's counseling center. She even offered documentation of a recent hospitalization that resulted from her inability to eat while in her depressive state. Time and time again she was told that her "excuses" were not "good enough." The interview ended with this young woman being told, "Again, I'm sorry, not a valid excuse. I'm not able to help you. You are no longer able to stay a CMU student." 

If depression put this young woman's dreams into a coffin, Central Michigan University nailed it shut. This student, after successfully dealing with her depression for almost a decade, crumbled in a school year. No, a hostile rooming environment is not the university's fault. The inability to move a student's room is understandable  it is a university, not a hotel. But, two weeks for an RHD to respond to issues that were escalated to their office? Nail. Telling a student with chronic depression that there was nothing that could be done for them and that it was up to them to make the best of their situation? Nail. Advertising "free counseling" and then, when someone with a documented mental illness is desperate for some sort of help, limiting those free sessions to two? Nail. Interviewing a student faced with dismissal, that is attempting to validate her poor performance, driven by nothing but the hope that she can keep her career ambitions alive, and telling her that the documented extenuating circumstances are excuses that are not good enough for her to continue on as a student at their dream school? Buried. 

The language that outlines the acceptable extenuating circumstances for academic dismissal demonstrates Central Michigan University's sad disregard for mental illness. I am confident that the masses would agree that depression, if not most mental health disorders, qualifies as a "personal illness." So much so, that it is seemingly impossible to believe that an institution of higher learning in the year 2016 would not consider depression as a personal illness. If it qualifies, how is anyone suffering from the latter to provide proof of recovery? It is impossible. There is no definite, lifelong fix for a chemical imbalance in the brain. Even if Central did not write off this young woman's depression as an "excuse" and accepted her depression as a valid extenuating circumstance, would they consider her attempts at utilizing university resources as a valid proof of recovery? If the university was truly committed to aiding their students in reaching their full personal and academic potential, I would assume the answer to be, yes. But, I am not so sure, because, in its current standing, it appears that Central Michigan University believes that depression belongs in the same grouping as mononucleosis.

Even if Central does not consider depression as a valid excuse for poor academic standing, they could at least make an effort to pretend. Even if they do not consider mental health issues to be a personal illness, a simple fourth point titled "Mental disability or illness" might do the trick. Even if they plan on rejecting every single student that comes in for a dismissal interview with a history of mental illness as their extenuating circumstance, they could, at the very least, validate the internal struggles of those students as they face their nadirs. 

Building upon the previous, Central Michigan University's disregard for mental illness manifests itself in the university's handling of students struggling with mental health. Allow me to introduce a young man, who like the young woman in the previous story, had also been diagnosed with a mental illness: a bipolar disorder. Although, different from chronic depression, the two disorders share many characteristics, including an elevated risk of suicide. In an attempt to gain the upper hand over his disorder, which had been "magnified by the transition to college," he utilized university resources. However, meeting with both a university psychiatrist and a counselor was not enough to suppress thoughts of suicide. And, in what he describes as "the most regrettable decision" he has ever made, attempted to take his own life. Fortunately, in the midst of an overdose, he decided against taking his own life, sought help, and was rushed to a local hospital. Despite consuming approximately a month's worth of the pills, the pills he was prescribed to alleviate him from the afflictions of his bipolar disorder, he survived. 

After a recovery period in the hospital, the student returned to Central Michigan University. Oddly enough, he describes the attempt as somewhat therapeutic: after realizing that his course of action was wrong and obtaining medical assistance, he was well aware how lucky he was to be given a second chance. He let thoughts of suicide grow too long, and he was now determined to never let those poisonous seeds germinate again. There were only a handful of people that were aware of what had happened and he intended to keep it that way. Nonetheless, his desire to let his mistake reside in the past was quickly shattered. Immediately upon his return, he was informed that he was to meet with a panel of university officials, Residence Life staff, and university mental health professionals to determine whether or not he was able to continue his education at Central Michigan. Initially, he refused, but was informed, that if he chose to do so, he would be dismissed as a student and he was forced to comply. 

So, within a few days of attempting to take his own life, this young man found himself in a room, made up of mostly strangers, that would not only interrogate him, but decide his fate as a student.  Fortune struck once again, after deliberating, the panel decided that the young man in front of them would be able to continue his education as a Chippewa.  

However, there was a catch, in order to remain a CMU student, he had to sign a behavioral contract. The contract labeled his suicide attempt as a "disruption to the learning/living environment of others" and it proclaimed that any further disruptions to the learning/living environment on behalf of the signee would result in further discipline and/or dismissal from the university. "The contract became a stigma of my mental illness. In a time in my life where I already felt hopeless, my cry for help was declared as a 'disruption to the learning and living environment.'  I felt so ashamed," reflected the young man.  

To be fair, the Central Michigan University Code of Student Rights, Responsibilities and Disciplinary Procedures declares under section 3.2.8, titled, Disruptive Self Injurious Behavior: "A student shall not engage or threaten to engage in self-injurious behavior that negatively impacts or is disruptive to the learning/living environment of others." Technically speaking, a suicide attempt is disruptive self injurious behavior. 

At the same time, section 3.2.8 displays Central Michigan University's disgraceful view on mental health. There could not be a more blatant disregard for students struggling with mental illness. Struggling is an understatement if an individual is engaging in self injurious behavior, they are losing their battle with mental illness. But, as long as a student's self injurious behavior coexists with the learning and living environment of others, who cares! Right? Wrong. 

Central Michigan could not have cared less about the student sitting before them. They essentially muzzled a student's cry for help when they provided their ultimatum. How can anyone look someone in the eye, days after they tried to take their own life, unaware of that person's mental state, and tell them that they are at fault for negatively impacting their peers as a result of their suicide attempt? 

Believe it or not, mental illness is not cured with the signing of a behavioral contract. The student's disorder worsened with the arrival of winter, but, because he was under a contract that threatened dismissal, he was afraid to seek help. He knew the university was monitoring his behavior and he did not want to give the impression that he was struggling through the change in season.  He suffered in absolute silence for months, until, one day, he broke down. 

Consequently, his break down led to his removal from the dorms. Without any sort of dialogue between the student and the university, they notified him that he was no longer welcome in the dorms due to his continued disruption to the learning/living environment of others. Instead, he was relocated to a room in which he was to live alone for the remainder of the school year.  

It does not take a psychologist to realize the detrimental impact that can occur when an individual with a mental disorder is isolated. Things were destined to get worse, and they did.  Within days of his removal from his dormitory, this young man withdrew from classes. He struggled to cope with his removal. He struggled to cope with that fact that no one from the university had spoken to him in the the eighteen hours between his break down and his removal. He struggled to cope with the fear that he would always be a product of his disorder. Yet, Central Michigan University told this student that he was lucky that the university was still accommodating him despite his actions.

Of the passel of statements that can be made in regard to this students removal, I want to highlight one thing: Central Michigan University is lucky that their refusal to work with mental illness did not result in the death of a student.

Now, the lens must shift back to the premise of this article: does Central Michigan withhold their commitment to fulfilling their mission, specifically to students struggling with mental health issues, as a university? Absolutely not. 

Regardless, Central Michigan's inability to effectively handle mental illness must be addressed. Alternative solutions must be explored and implemented. The internal struggles of those burdened with mental illness must not only be validated, but accepted. A dialogue concerning mental health and Central Michigan University must occur. I also feel it necessary to mention that I personally contacted Central Michigan University at the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year in the hopes of opening up said dialogue. As expected, the university never responded.  A university should be committed to the success and well being of all its students regardless of the disadvantages they are facing. Nevertheless, it's going to take more than an article ridden with anaphora to promote change. 

Works Referenced: 
Central Michigan University's Counseling and Mental Health Services brochure 
Central Michigan University's Code of Student Rights, Responsibilities and Disciplinary Procedures 

Seth Canner
Assistant Editor-In-Chief, CLB
Law Clerk, Levitt Law Firm 


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