Colgate Gets Real on Mental Health

Though one in four Colgate students utilize the Counseling Center at some point during his or her college career, policies regarding readmission after a medical leave of absence are rarely discussed unless a student actively seeks out that information. The full guidelines are explicitly outlined in the student handbook, but questions of confidentiality and the student’s best interest are still unanswered for the majority of the Colgate community. Associate Dean for Administrative Advising Marrlee Burgess and Director of Counseling and Psychological Services Mark Thompson jointly discussed the thought process behind Colgate’s policies, emphasizing the collaboration between the administration and the Counseling Center to best serve a student’s individual needs.

A student can appeal to their dean if they feel they require a medical leave of absence. Once a leave of absence is granted, normally one full semester must pass before the student is readmitted to Colgate. 

“[Students are expected to] undergo professional health-care treatment as the primary method of resolving the initial problem. Failure to seek ongoing treatment will raise serious doubt as to the student’s readiness to return, and in such cases the university may withhold readmission until appropriate treatment has been received and documented,” according to the Colgate student handbook. 

After undergoing professional treatment, a student may then fill out a readmission application addressing why he or she is ready to resume their studies at Colgate. With the guidance of the Counseling Center, the administrative dean then makes the final decision whether or not to readmit the student.

Though it is the dean who grants a medical leave and makes the final decision regarding readmission, the deans often rely on the assistance of the experts at the Counseling Center to make these important decisions. Just as one would consult with a doctor regarding a medical leave for a physical ailment, the administration consults with the professionals at the Counseling Center for guidance and advice.

“The dean grants the leave and grants the readmission, but we do that together. If it’s a mental health issue, [the Counseling Center professionals] are the experts on campus. We weigh in,” Thompson said.

Burgess also spoke to the collaboration from an administrative point of view.

“We’re intertwined in this process. They’re the mental health experts. We all have a background, but not to the degree to which they have the background. When it comes to anything [about] mental health, we rely on their consult and their professional perspective. I wouldn’t even dream of thinking about changing the process without working closely with the Counseling Center,” Burgess said.

Thompson emphasized the role that confidentiality plays in the collaboration between the administration and the Counseling Center.

“If the student has been working with us at the Counseling Center, they can give us permission to weigh in and to share with the dean our perspective. Now, we would never do that unless we had permission from the student because of confidentiality. We’re not going to violate that,” Thompson said. “We want to be collaborative when we can in the best interest of the student, but if the student says ‘no’ that is the bottom line. From there, everything else flows and if we violate that, then we might as well close the doors and shut down the service.”

To further highlight the importance placed on confidentiality, Thompson spoke to his own beliefs regarding the importance of trust in treating mental health issues.

“Confidentiality is one of those fundamental issues for mental health services. If the work that we do is going to be at all effective, it is necessary for students to have trust in us, to believe that we are a dependable resource that they can come to and talk about things that are highly personal and that they don’t have to worry that it will be disclosed to anybody else without their permission,” Thompson said.

In the national conversation about collegiate mental health, many voices cite a college’s “self-interest” as a major critique regarding how an administration approaches readmission policies. In “A Survey Report on Mental Health,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) found that 23 percent of students surveyed believed their colleges to be unsupportive of students living with mental illnesses, and that these students were penalized for disclosing their medical condition.

Both Burgess and Thompson emphasized how Colgate’s policies are created in the interest of the student, rather than in the interest of the university.

“I can honestly say that [Colgate’s liability] is not at the top of our mind when we’re working with students at all; it’s really about student success,” Burgess said.

Thompson addressed the considerations that the administration and Counseling Center must balance through the readmission process.

“I don’t think about it as a liability issue, but we do have a responsibility to the well-being of that individual student, absolutely. But we also have the responsibility of the other 2,900 students. If the student, whatever his or her issues were, resulted in a disruption to the lives of other students, if they couldn’t be students here because of the behavior of somebody else – if that student comes back and engages in the same behavior again and nothing has changed, then we really aren’t being responsible to all those other students that we have a responsibility to,” Thompson said.

In its survey, NAMI also reported that 46 percent of surveyed students consider medical leave of absence accommodations to be critical to their success.

In her two years at Colgate, Dean Burgess has recognized the importance of truly understanding a student’s situation when granting medical leave and/or readmission.

“My concern is that we’re making sure that we’re doing the best we can to understand the student’s experience in this process, and then also to make a good decision – I like to think with the student – about what’s in their best interest and coming back,” Burgess said. “A lot of this kind of, you know, administrative stuff, that might come across as ‘bureaucracy,’ perhaps, but it’s our being thorough. I like to think it’s in the best interest of the student that we’re taking our time to be deliberative and to also spend time getting to know the student and their experience in the process.”

Once a student is readmitted to Colgate after taking a medical leave of absence, he or she is readmitted unconditionally. There is no mandated form of counseling upon their return.

“We expect students to utilize the resources that are available to them when they come back. With that said, I think all the deans keep an eye on any student coming back from the first time they’ve been gone, and it’s pretty much a practice, we set up appointments with those students when they come back just to see how they’re doing, what their goals are … [But] our expectations of them are of any student. We just remind them of where they can go for help, and to let them know that we want them to be successful, that we’re here to help them with that,” Burgess said.

The option to take a medical leave of absence is meant as a resource to ensure that a student can fully benefit from his or her time at Colgate.

“This whole medical leave process is not meant to be one that is punitive for the student. The last thing we want for a student is to feel like there is some kind of negative consequence, that they have been subjected to something that feels like a punishment. We want students to be in the role of being a student as quickly as they can be when they’re ready to do that,” Thompson said.