leave_of_absence

Penn President Amy Gutmann, center, spoke at a University Council meeting last year during which she introduced the Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare.

Photo: Yolanda Chen

Last spring, College freshman Kathryn Dewitt was facing her own crisis amidst a semester marked by two student suicides in three weeks.

The peak of her crisis — a hospitalization related to her mental health — happened just a few days after the death of then-College freshman Madison Holleran, who lived on the same floor as her. Even though her personal issues had been culminating for months, the thought of taking a leave of absence from Penn had never crossed her mind.

“Penn thought it was best for me to take time to take care of myself, but I wasn’t in my capacity to hear their reasoning that it could be a good option,” Dewitt said. “When you only see people doing amazing things and graduating in the typical four years, you don’t see a leave as part of the typical Penn experience. I thought it was far too deviant, too abnormal.”

While Penn students take leaves of absence for various reasons, including working on a political campaign and pursuing a startup idea, those dealing with mental health issues stress that leaves must become an acceptable step for students to take on the path to graduating.

The Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare — created in the wake of six student suicides over 15 months — advised the University in February to not only clarify its policy on leaves of absence, but to address the stigma associated with taking time off from school.

While each of the undergraduate schools has worked to emphasize the consistent process for taking and returning from a leave, many students hold that the administrative complications of taking a leave, coupled with students’ own perceptions about taking time off, prevent them from making decisions that may be best for their well-being.

“There’s a need to create campus unity about leaves of absence,” Dewitt said. “I have hope that work can be done so that students recognize that leaves can be important and normalized at Penn.”

Feeling caught in an ‘only option’ position

Along with medical complications from asthma that left her hospitalized, Dewitt’s crisis last spring came out of a combination of family issues, difficulties with the social transition to Penn and academic struggles in classes in which she had hoped to major and excel.

“On top of everything, seeing my academic dream, and generally my set plan, disintegrate was kind of hard,” she said. “A lot of mental games were going on from it all.”

Though Dewitt knew staying at Penn was worsening her mental state, she did not seriously look into the possibility of taking a leave.

“Even before coming back for second semester, I was caught in the duality of not wanting to be at Penn, but also not wanting to be at home,” she said. “I didn’t see another alternative to staying at Penn, and it’s never a good place to be feeling like you’re in an ‘only option’ position.”

After being released from the hospital for mental health reasons, students are highly encouraged by the administration to take time off. In Dewitt’s case, she left the hospital to find her PennCard deactivated and her dorm room locked.

Rob Nelson, Penn’s executive director for education and academic planning, said students dealing with many overlapping pressures or personal difficulties often fail to see the potential benefits of taking a leave.

“When students are facing any combination of high-pressure situations and putting a lot of pressure on themselves, it can feel like [leaves] are punitive,” Nelson said. “But in reality, they’re there to help students get out of those situations and handle the problem in order to come back and succeed.”

Penn gave Dewitt a chance to prove that she was well enough to continue her semester. With family pressure to resume classes, coupled with an internal sense of having no alternative to returning to Penn, Dewitt managed to prove that she could stay. She met with Counseling and Psychological Services and Student Intervention Services to demonstrate her well-being, even though she now admits that her personal problems were far from over.

Dewitt was cleared to stay, but the University enforced conditions, including meeting with a CAPS therapist and moving to a separate room since her roommate no longer wanted to live with her. Already feeling isolated from what she described as “a fight to stay at Penn,” she then had to move to a single room away from her few close friends.

“Before I had been self-harming, but there was the protective factor of having a roommate and needing to put on a front,” she said. “But then I was alone in that room with nothing to stop me from self-harming or doing more. It was at that point that I realized that I had to take a leave if I was going to survive.”

Hurdles to overcome

Like Dewitt, many Penn students with serious personal issues glaze over the thought of taking a leave until the crisis finally becomes too extreme to ignore. Though he had been suffering for months with what would later be diagnosed as major depressive disorder, College senior Jack Park did not take a leave until his attempted suicide during the second semester of his freshman year.

“The process of taking a leave, objectively, may not be that overwhelming, but dealing with a psychologically vulnerable subset of the population — when everything from eating to sleeping to speaking feels hard — taking a leave sounds like a huge challenge,” Park said.

Though they were pushed to the breaking point, most students found the logistical process to take a leave as relatively easy, and they ultimately think their leaves were helpful for their mental health conditions. However, the process of returning back to Penn proved more difficult than expected.

Immediately after her friend walked her to CAPS to disclose her crucial need to take a leave, Dewitt simply returned to her room, packed in 15 minutes, then was picked up by family friends and headed to the airport.

“I was able to leave immediately that night and the little paperwork for it came after-the-fact,” she said. “They make it so easy to take a leave, but I realized how they make it so much harder to get back in.”

When Dewitt applied to return the next semester, the University wrote a letter turning her down because they wanted her to continue treatment. But Dewitt also noted that the letter — along with writing incorrect dates about the timeline of her experience — said that she should continue to review her academic standings, even though her grades had not been a serious problem.

“It was frustrating since I had done relatively well, so it sent the message that there was a whole other problem I needed to take on,” she said. “Even when you’re on a leave, there’s still the pressure that you have to be using your time well.”

Dewitt took this letter as motivation to show that she was using her time well, throwing herself into an internship at Active Minds National, and working at the National Alliance on Mental Illness and several hobbies during her time in D.C. While her fulfilling semester away was ultimately beneficial for her mental well-being, Dewitt said she felt unsettled that “the pressure of being a Penn student didn’t end” during what was supposed to be a break from that environment.

For Katiera Sordjan, a Daily Pennsylvanian columnist who took a leave last year for mental health and academic reasons, the process of returning back was not only harder than she expected, but also taxing on the mental health progress she had made. After fulfilling the University’s conditions and deciding that she was mentally ready to come back, Sordjan did not end up returning until the fall, even though she had been planning and hoping to return for summer sessions.

“I realize that it was not fully explained to me what exactly the process of coming back would look like and especially what that timeline would be,” she said. “The stress of getting back was kind of a test of where I was mentally, and the anxiety-inducing waiting process definitely aggravated things for me.”

Administrative complications

According to the Task Force Report released in February, Penn’s four undergraduate schools have the same underlying policies regarding leaves of absence, but the way in which each school communicated these policies led to ambiguous or slightly different interpretations.

“Despite student concerns, the Task Force found that the policies were in fact consistent across the four undergraduate schools, but that the school websites emphasized different aspects of those policies,” said Rebecca Bushnell, Task Force co-chair and former School of Arts and Sciences dean “It is our understanding that this issue is now being addressed by the individual schools.”

For all undergraduate schools, the process follows the same general steps: meeting with an academic advisor, submitting a formal request to leave and receiving specific conditions that the student must meet in order to return. Nelson said that each school has worked to clarify this common thread running through all of their procedures.

Beyond analyzing the clarity of the language on each of their websites, the schools have aimed to foster a united attitude towards the decision of taking a leave — an attitude shift that will hopefully make leaves seem like a more viable option to students.

“The schools have reviewed their websites effectively so that the descriptions allow students to better see how the process isn’t one of being punished, but one they can understand and think about as something that can help them succeed,” Nelson said.

Though the process has the same overarching framework across schools, Nelson also noted that the unique reasons for taking leaves, along with the distinct academic requirements of each school, mean that students must work with advisors to create an individualized plan.

“Medical, academic, mental health or a combination of these reasons require you to meet with certain offices and people, so it’s key to work with an advisor to map out and understand your plan for both going and returning,” Nelson said.

Students agree that academic advisors help bring the process that can sometimes feel disconnected into a central place within their respective schools. Sordjan said the process felt “a bit split up and confusing” until her advisor served as a check-in point and helped streamline the procedures for her.

But students believe that the extent of this advising benefit may be limited to students who have already entered into the process of taking a leave.

“Advisors do work well one-on-one with students, but in terms of spreading and educating everyone about leaves of absences and championing the benefits they can have, the University could do better,” said Wharton senior Marko Vucetic, who took one leave for academic and mental health reasons two years ago, and another to pursue work in a nonprofit organization last year.

While there is room to make the benefits of advising more widely available, students stress that most change should focus on the negative connotations that tend to surround the idea of leaves of absence.

“The process of taking a leave itself isn’t too painful,” Vucetic said. “The shortcoming is the need to work on the culture.”

Stigma

Despite the obstacles to coming back, most students who have returned from leaves emphasize that the root of the problem lies in the general tendency of Penn students to focus more on external pressures than on their personal well-being.

“It’s really stigmatized on campus since Penn is very ‘go-go-go’ and you don’t realize that there are actually a lot of students who take leaves,” Sordjan said. “Individually, the best thing to do is to focus on yourself, but that’s hard to do at Penn with all these incoming pressures.”

When first having to take a leave, both Sordjan and Vucetic said they went out “kicking and screaming,” but now realize how much better their lives are at Penn after taking time away from campus to focus on themselves.

“Ultimately, you need to get away from all of these pressures, step away from Penn, then come back and have a better experience for yourself after realizing what’s best for you,” Sordjan said.

After returning from his leave, Vucetic noted the “culture shock” he felt when coming back to campus, when he was reminded of the high standards that everyone sets for themselves.

Because students often feel isolated when returning to this environment, CAPS started a group for students who have returned from leaves of absence to meet and talk about this experience. For Vucetic, being in the group has been helpful because he believes in the power of having “people tell their stories who have gotten away from the bubble that is the University and then come back to tell their success stories.”

“I feel like I’m doing my college experience ‘right’ now that I’m not so worried about the grade or tomorrow, but more focused on what’s best for my experience now,” he said.

While Park recognizes the University’s efforts to better publicize the policies, he believes that the main problem involves students’ initial inability to consider the personal benefits that come with a leave. Instead of taking a leave of absence being a problem involving language accuracy or access to the procedures, he believes it is an issue of individual perceptions about one’s surroundings and purpose at Penn.

“The high school-bred idea of competitiveness and the societal idea of not wanting to fall behind have led us all to want to be the best and brightest, which doesn’t seem to fit with taking a leave and facing the anxiety and uncertainty of that path,” he said. “Stigma is mostly in the individual student’s brain, so the individual has to change his or her perception of the world by starting to think differently.”

Many students who have come back and had a better experience at Penn realize that there needs to be a culture shift in which students see leaves of absence as a viable option as a part of their time at Penn.

“The point is not going on a leave, but to find out what you are doing here, who you are and what you want to do. Finding that ‘thing’ should be the focus,” Vucetic said. “For some people, leaves can be what helps them get there, so the point should be to make leaves a socially acceptable way for people to figure that ‘thing’ out.”

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