Content Warning: The following article includes mention of suicide. University Counseling services are available at 609-258-3141, and the Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 988 or +1 (800) 273-TALK (8255). A Crisis Text Line is also available in the United States; text HOME to 741741. Students can contact residential college staff and the Office of Religious Life for other support and resources.
In December 2014, a student at Princeton filed a lawsuit against the University and seven administrators, alleging that they discriminated against him when they reacted to a suicide attempt in his dorm room two years prior.
In the lawsuit, the student, who identifies using the pseudonym “W.P.,” alleged that had he not ‘voluntarily’ withdrawn from the University, he would be involuntarily withdrawn in approximately three weeks for failing to attend the classes from which he had been banned. The student ultimately left Princeton for two semesters.
“Princeton knew, or should have known, that this was against W.P.’s best interests and was likely to exacerbate his condition and cause him great emotional distress,” the complaint read.
The lawsuit prompted a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation. Other students also expressed issues obtaining a mental health leave, and the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) spoke with administrators to make the process more transparent.
An overview of the past decade of mental health-related leave of absences at Princeton shows that the process has rapidly changed over time. The mid-2010s saw high-profile negative experiences with the University’s mental health services, but students today report that obtaining a mental health leave is “a very smooth process.” The Daily Princetonian spoke with two students who took a mental health leave of absence on their experiences obtaining a leave, how they got reinstated, and their concerns with how Princeton handles the process.
Mental health leaves are again relevant with Yale having had a major recent controversy. In December 2022, Yale University was sued for discriminating against students for mental health disabilities. The plaintiffs, including mental health advocacy group “Elis for Rachael” and two current students, alleged that the University discriminates against students with mental health disabilities through unfair practices and policies, especially surrounding withdrawal and reinstatement. Yale and the plaintiffs later negotiated a settlement.
Henry Erdman ’24 and Justin Chae ’24 both took leaves for a year. Chae withdrew before the start of the spring semester and moved out during winter break. Erdman withdrew before the ninth week of the semester, the last week that students can take a leave from the University without taking “Ws,” or withdrawals, on their transcript.
“I think for me, there are certain feelings, like guilt. I felt like I was sort of giving up by taking a gap year but I think at the time, that’s what I really needed to do,” Chae said.
Princeton’s history handling mental health leave of absences
Though the process to obtain a mental health-related leave of absence was relatively easy in Chae and Erdman’s experience, in the past, students have had issues with the process.
The 2014 lawsuit said that, as a result of the forced withdrawal, W.P. “will always be afraid that seeking the help of mental health professionals in a time of distress may lead to disaster.”
According to Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS), requiring a student to take a leave of absence is “exceedingly rare” and such a situation only occurred “fewer than five times in the past ten years.”
The year before, another student wrote an anonymous op-ed in the ‘Prince’ describing her experience with the University’s mental health process. She wrote about the series of events leading up to voluntary withdrawal as a “cookiecutter ... [one] that seems to be very rigid and inflexible,” one that made her feel violated and ostracized.
In December 2014, members of the USG’s Mental Health Initiative Board met with Senior Associate Dean of the College Claire Fowler to explore the possibility of publishing the official policies for mental health withdrawals and readmissions in the Undergraduate Announcement, something that they now do.
Fowler suggested that the Mental Health Initiative Board work with the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students (ODUS) to revise the current FAQs on mental health withdrawals and readmissions and have that recognized as the University’s official protocol. The conference came after 95.5 percent of voters approved of a referendum question calling for greater transparency in mental health withdrawal and readmission policies.
Two years later, in December 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) concluded its review of the University’s Americans with Disabilities Act policies. The DOJ did not find any instances of non-compliance. However, the University and the DOJ reached an agreement that detailed steps that the University must take to strengthen its policies, practices, and training to benefit all current and future students with disabilities.
At the time, the University said it “will clarify some information regarding policies and practices for reasonable accommodations and student leaves of absence.”
How students obtain a mental health related leave
According to a document from CPS from December 2018, approximately 150 – 180 undergraduates take a leave of absence in the course of an academic year, with approximately 30 – 40 students for self-described mental health reasons.
“In almost all cases, it is the student who initiates the leave of absence,” the document reads. There are around three to five cases a year where the University will encourage a student who had not initially considered time away to consider doing so to “address the issues affecting their safety and/or well-being.”
The document also explained how most students who encounter mental health issues at the University remain enrolled.
Chae explained that he hadn’t initially considered his leave a “mental health leave” and decided to take time off for an “overwhelming number of factors,” including to figure out what his goals were to “resituate academically.”
“I decided I need some time away to figure out, like, what’s even overwhelming me?” he said.
According to CPS, a leave of absence is typically initiated for one of two reasons: the student believes that their treatment requires more attention than is possible while also being a full-time student, or the student has been unable to concentrate on their academic work and hopes to avoid a negative effect in their coursework.
Chae visited a University website for students considering taking a leave and then had a conversation with his residential college dean to put a specific plan in place, which is the first step in the leave process.
“I might have emailed [my dean] on a Friday, and we met on that Monday,” he said. “We basically had a quick Zoom meeting talking about how we are feeling and what’s going on and I didn’t really get any sort of resistance.”
“Throughout the whole process, she was pretty supportive,” he added.
Sometimes the Director of Student Life (DSL) or dean may request or require an exit consultation with CPS before students leave campus to understand the student’s experience on campus or provide treatment recommendations that the student can pursue while away from the University.
In order to allow disclosure of limited information from the exit consultation from CPS to the DSL or dean, the student is required to sign an authorization, permitting CPS to share with the DSL or the dean the student’s risk assessment and recommendations for treatment.
After the meeting with the dean and if necessary, a consultation with CPS, students planning on taking a leave need to sign a few documents.
“It was a lot easier than expected,” Chae said.
Considering Erdman decided to take a leave during the middle of the semester, once he pressed a button confirming his leave, he had to move out.
“Once you press the button, you have 72 hours to leave,” Erdman said.
Getting reinstated by the University
Chae and Erdman both reported that during their time off, they didn’t receive any “check-ins” or resources from the University, besides information about the reinstatement process a few weeks before they were slated to return to Princeton.
The semester before the student’s return, the residential college dean communicates what is required for reinstatement, provides the timetable for submitting forms, information about financial aid, and rooming preferences, and directs the student to the reinstatement application.
After taking time off, Erdman filled out a form to be reinstated by the University, which he explained had “conflicting deadlines” and made course selection “stressful.”
He claimed that due to the time this process took place for him, it interfered with his course selection.
“I had a friend who took an academic leave of absence. He said that he was able to do course selection at a normal time,” he said.
According to a letter obtained by the ‘Prince,’ in order to be reinstated by the University, Erdman had to schedule an appointment with CPS between four and six weeks before the beginning of his intended return.
“A goal of your treatment should be the development of an increased ability to handle both the academic and psychological stresses that regularly arise during a semester here,” the letter read.
In some circumstances, students have to meet with a CPS counselor as part of the reinstatement process. According to CPS, the consultation confirms that the student is not at risk of self-harm or harm to others, and the meeting provides an opportunity for the CPS clinician to discuss the progress the student has made following their leave. Sometimes, the meetings are used to help with ongoing support when the student returns to campus.
Though Chae did not express issues with course selection, considering he first took time off in the spring semester and came back the following spring, he could not participate in room draw. He was placed in a random room when he returned.
According to University guidelines, the University expects that “all students will be reinstated.”
Participation in extracurriculars
Erdman was previously the drum major and the president of the Princeton University Band. He explained that during the fall semester, he traveled from his home in Maryland to play with the band at football games. According to him, about three weeks later, a member of ODUS who knew that he was on a leave recognized him and told the band that he could not play anymore. Erdman also claimed that he was not allowed to follow the band “as a fan” on their march around the stadium before football games either.
Erdman said that in the contract he signed when he first took a leave, it mentioned that students could not be a part of ODUS-affiliated clubs during their time off, but he explained that it was “buried” and that “it wasn’t something that [he] was aware of,” until after ODUS told him he could no longer participate.
“I did dig through and find that [in the contract], but it was hard,” he said.
Chae remained president of the Korean Students Association at Princeton during his time off and helped out with events from home.
“I remember that I was still like, taking on a lot of the responsibilities like figuring out catered food and stuff like that, even though I was like 1000s of miles away in Texas,” he said.
He mentioned that although he didn’t have an experience like Erdman, he knew a friend who was a senior who took a leave who wanted to participate in their senior show for a performance group, but wasn’t allowed to by ODUS.
Room for improvement
Erdman also said that he wishes the University provided more resources to students before deciding on a mental health leave of absence.
“There are ways to step in before [taking a leave] that I feel weren’t really accessible,” Erdman said.
He explained how during his leave, he was a part of an intensive outpatient program (IOP). Though Erdman described his IOP as “intense,” he said that “a lot of IOPs are designed for people to work and then go [to the program] in the evening.”
Princeton University does not offer an IOP nor resources to obtain one on the CPS website. On the other hand, Rutgers University does offer an IOP through a four-week, 12-session structured program for adults ages 18 and older “with a focus on utilizing DBT [(dialectical behavior therapy)] skills to manage and relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression.” Participants of the program attend three three-hour sessions a week. The program offers group sessions facilitated by a Licensed Clinical Social Worker as well as individual and family therapy and medication management appointments with a Licensed Medical Provider.
Chae explained that having to take a year off instead of having the option to take a semester off from Princeton made his choice “a much bigger decision.”
“If you can’t take a semester, then you kind of go all into this gap year or not at all,” he said.
Students with advanced standing eligibility who plan on taking the option of one semester of advanced standing can apply for a one-semester leave of absence. Students who have completed at least one year of study and have joined an academic department may also petition to take a one-semester leave if they “can demonstrate that returning out of the normal sequence would not unreasonably impact their regular progress to degree.”
Chae reflected on his time off and mentioned how choosing to take a gap year was the right choice for him.
He said that although he believes that may be a privileged thing to say, as he had resources available and a supportive home environment, he thinks that “you should be the priority” when it comes to deciding to take a leave or not.
“I gained a lot of great skills that I wouldn’t have had time to develop while here on campus,” Chae said. “My advice would be if you feel like you need it, you can take it and then the rest can be figured out later.”
Lia Opperman is an associate News editor for the ‘Prince.’
Please send any corrections to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.