“So why did you take a leave of absence?”
If you take a leave of absence for mental health purposes, this is, by no means, a simple question to answer. But you will hear this at least once — or perhaps more than a few times. The reality is that nobody prefers to take a leave of absence. Nobody wants to admit that their mental health has come to a point where they need to take a break from what defines us, especially at this age: being a student.
Students take leaves for a variety of reasons, and we should not feel ashamed to do so. Personally, I have struggled with contamination obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) since high school, but it was not until my freshman year at Penn that I decided to take a leave and directly address my mental health. With OCD, the more frequently a person engages in his/her compulsions, the more intense and prominent his/her obsessions become, and consequently it all turns into a seemingly-ceaseless cycle. While on leave, I sought exposure and ritual prevention therapy (EX/RP), a specialized cognitive-behavioral therapy for OCD. EX/RP provided me with the skills and strength I needed to expose myself to “contaminants” and refrain from all compulsions.
In other words, I took a leave of absence to address a mental health condition, and in doing so, I learned more about myself and what I want to gain from my college experience — which is different from what I had originally wanted, before my undergraduate career began. Looking back, my leave helped me focus on myself and ultimately understand myself in much greater depth and clarity; I realize that sometimes I need to take a step that seems “backwards” in order to continue moving forward in life.
The Penn student atmosphere is straightforward, pre-professional, and fast-paced in all aspects: academically, culturally, and socially. While this is a wonderful environment for some, it is an environment that I’ve realized no longer suits me. After much introspection, I have learned to truly cherish my time in college and take each step slowly, rather than rushing things in an environment that is more career-oriented and “pre-professional.” Unfortunately, it is exactly this sort of student atmosphere and culture that has contributed to our toxic stigma around taking a leave of absence for mental health reasons, and I’m sure my fellow returning students can certainly agree.
Of course, we must remember that mental health is a spectrum, and it encompasses disorders as well as general well-being. Mental health is a rocky journey — a journey that everyone must inherently struggle with, albeit to different extents. But it is a journey that I hope all Penn students can prioritize and dedicate their time and energy to.
And so, I leave you with this: remember that you are a person before you are a student. If you need to sleep in on a Saturday afternoon rather than study for an upcoming midterm, then do so. If you need to take a leave of absence for mental health reasons, then do so. Let’s take the first step toward ending the stigma around mental health by prioritizing ourselves and our health — something we as Penn students can all certainly work on.
BRIDGET YU is a College sophomore from Los Angeles, CA studying Biological Basis of Behavior. She plans to attend medical school and specialize in psychiatry. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.