Afraid to Go Back: The Cost of Medical Leave
This piece was written as part of our Disability Justice on Campus Day of Action campaign.
Written by: Molly Hawes
“I’m honestly almost afraid of coming back to school,” Sofia* said.
“I have to start fresh now, I have to start new, and hopefully this doesn’t come back to haunt me.”
Sofia is a 21-year-old emergency medical technician from New Jersey, who lives with mental illness and a stomach condition that can significantly limit her ability to move. Despite her passion for academics, Sofia said she was pressured to withdraw from her Montclair State University classes in the spring of 2017, because her disabilities limited her ability to attend class. Now, what would seemingly be an exciting prospect for a person like Sofia-- returning to college after taking time off-- is a source of stress.
Sofia enrolled at Montclair State in the fall of 2016. During her time there, she attempted to attend class as much as possible, despite a doctor’s recommendation that she limit herself to short, five- to ten-minute walks each day. But she often struggled to leave her bed. “After you’re going through so much pain, you really can’t even get up because your body’s exhausted from fighting it,” she explained.
Sofia said that she diligently completed her assignments, asked for additional make-up work, and communicated with professors about the nature of her condition-- but her circumstances were mostly met with apathy. Professors were not willing to excuse her absences or explore alternatives.
“None of my teachers told me about getting incompletes, or getting accommodations to be able to do things online,” she said.
At the recommendation of a dean, she applied for a medical leave. This decision saddled her family with additional unexpected expenses, lowered her grade point average, and affected her ability to receive financial aid upon her return to the school. A month before the start of the fall semester, she was told that she would have to pay over $2,000 in order to attend classes, and would have to earn back her financial aid eligibility by taking extra credits. Because of these barriers, she did not return to Montclair State, and chose to work for a year before enrolling at Bergen Community College.
The decision to attend a different school did not alleviate Sofia’s concerns about accessibility. Her best friend, Danny French, is in his final semester at Bergen. Danny also lives with psychiatric disabilities, and has struggled to find adequate academic supports at college. During his third semester, he decided to take time off school to focus on his mental health.
“I was in a therapy session and I was just telling my therapist, ‘I can’t do it. I’m getting terrible grades,’” Danny said. “I didn’t have the energy to show up to classes.” His therapist-- an independent provider unaffiliated with the college-- offered to help him through the process of taking a medical leave of absence.
According to Danny, he filed the paperwork on time, provided documentation of his diagnoses’ impact on his day-to-day functioning, and waited several weeks for the request to be approved. He stopped going to class, operating under the assumption that the leave would be approved and that he could afford to take time to rest. He was surprised by administrators’ request for additional documentation of his disability, including evidence that he’d been seeing a psychiatrist. He said that he provided that evidence, along with additional documentation of his prescribed medications--processes he now describes as “desperately trying to prove that I am mentally ill, and I can’t do it right now.” But his request for medical leave and subsequent appeal were both rejected.
“They basically said ‘No,’ you know, ‘depression and anxiety and PTSD isn’t a good enough reason to not come to school,’” Danny said.
Danny said that, because his leave request was rejected, he received five Fs on his transcript for that semester. His grade point average, which previously hovered near a 3.0, dropped below the 2.0 cutoff for financial aid eligibility. The school required that he pay partial tuition for his failed courses. And Danny said he was informed that, if he wanted to return to Bergen, he would need to pay full tuition for any courses he took.
“Not only did I leave school, I also left school knowing that if I did come back, it would be even harder to begin with,” said Danny. “Because I would have to retake everything. And then I’d have to pay for it.”
Danny spent about a year and a half away from school, working to pay for tuition and continuing to pursue treatment for his depression and suicidality. Despite the additional financial burden, he returned to Bergen in the fall of 2016, and now plans to transfer to a four-year institution for his bachelor’s degree.
While he did emphasize the benefits of taking time away from college, he also recognized that professors could’ve intervened and opened critical pathways to support while he was still at Bergen.
“I enjoy being in a classroom, I thrive in a classroom,” Danny said. “But I really think that in some of my classes, I was exhibiting enough [symptoms] to at least give concern to a teacher to pull me aside and be like, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ That might have helped me a lot.”
Sofia also communicated the importance of educating professors about mental health and accommodations for students with disabilities. She cited a positive relationship with her English professor as especially encouraging.
“My English teacher-- without me asking her-- went to the dean and spoke for me,” Sofia remembered. “She was like, ‘Listen. She’s a good student. She’s been doing all her work... She just can’t show up to class.”
Both Danny and Sofia expressed this sentiment many times-- that the individuals who supported and advocated for them were critical sources of hope, despite operating within a flawed system. Sofia expressed immense gratitude for the Montclair State financial aid officer who advised her to save time and money by transferring to Bergen instead.
Danny is currently working with Bergen administrators who are supportive of his efforts to increase mental health advocacy on campus, and are interested in assisting the development of on-campus peer support programs.
Both Sofia and Danny agreed that major infrastructural changes need to occur in order for students with disabilities to receive adequate support within higher education. But in the interim, they said, one supportive administrator-- or one supportive professor-- can have a significant impact on a struggling student’s life.
Danny and Sofia will be participating in the Project LETS Day of Action at Bergen Community College on April 19, 2018. They plan to highlight student narratives, issue demands, and start conversations with administrative allies. Anyone interested can contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
*Name has been changed.