Coming Back

Students Return from Mental Health-Related Leaves with a New Approach to Harvard

This is part III in a three-part series. Part I ran in The Crimson’s Commencement Year in Review issue last May and was reprinted on April 28. Part II ran on April 29.

When Karina A. Partovi ’14-’15 looks out the window of her Eliot dorm room at the Anderson Memorial Bridge, all she sees is a bridge.

She looks out at the stone ledge perched above the rushing waters of the Charles without thinking back to that November night more than three years ago when she sat on that ledge, stared into those waters, and prepared to take her own life.

“It’s just there now,” Partovi said. “It’s not an enemy.”

After contemplating suicide, Partovi took a leave of absence from Harvard and returned to her home in San Diego, where she saw a therapist, worked at a local elementary school, and spent time with her family.

Now, she’s back on campus, once again thrust into the fast-paced life of a Harvard undergraduate.

Partovi is not alone. Students who have gone home for mental health reasons say they came back to Harvard with a new approach to addressing the difficulties of campus life, better equipped to make the most of their Harvard experiences. After spending time divorced from the University for mental health reasons—striving to heal and demonstrating their stability to Harvard—students are excited to return to campus, ready to take on the challenges of an undergraduate once more.

‘YOU’RE COMING BACK’

When Partovi came down from the edge of the Anderson bridge after her suicidal thoughts had subsided, her freshman resident dean gave her a choice.

“My options were—and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful—my options were: you can either leave willingly or be forced out,” Partovi said. “But [then-Ivy Yard Resident Dean William Cooper ’94] also made clear, which I didn’t appreciate it at the time because I was angry and hurt and very very scared and overwhelmed, he did say that we’re not kicking you out forever, you’re coming back, you just shouldn’t be here right now.”

Partovi, choosing to not mar her record with a forced withdrawal, elected instead to take a leave of absence. Cooper escorted her back to her dorm, supervised her as she packed, and ensured that she was off campus the next day. Cooper, who has since departed the position and now works as associate dean of student life at the College, declined to comment for this story.

Now, more than three years after the night on the bridge, Partovi is once again eating in dining halls, sitting in lectures, and otherwise being a student at Harvard. But unlike most students, she and others who took time off for mental health reasons undergo an extensive process to demonstrate that their mental health—and not merely their personal or academic achievements—will allow them to thrive at Harvard.

Usually after a student takes a leave of absence, University Health Services sets guidelines to facilitate his or her successful return. Those guidelines instruct students to seek out help from a mental health professional during their time off and involve themselves in a structured activity—through a job, volunteer work, or taking a class—typically lasting a period of six months.

According to several students interviewed for this story, students are told to collect letters of recommendations from their mental health professional and someone familiar with their structured time and submit those documents to UHS for review. In addition, UHS professionals conduct interviews with students before they intend to return to campus, usually through an in-person interview at the UHS facilities in the Holyoke Center.

According to Secretary of the Administrative Board, John “Jay” L. Ellison, a representative from UHS compiles the information gathered from the letters and the interview and makes a recommendation to the Ad Board. After reviewing this information, the body votes on whether the student is fit to return to college life.

When George, who took time off for mental health reasons in fall 2012, flew to Cambridge last July for his UHS interview, his interviewer all but assured him that he would be readmitted, saying that only a handful of people that she interviewed were eventually rejected by the Ad Board.

“It wasn’t a very long interview; it was only ten, 15 minutes long,” said George, whose name has been changed given the sensitive nature of this topic. “I know it was necessary, and I’m sure she got useful information from it, but it felt a little bit like a formality more than anything else.”

Kate, who was placed on leave for mental health reasons, said the financial cost of travelling to Cambridge for an in-person interview can be burdensome for some students. “If I were an international student or a student from California, I just couldn’t imagine it,” said Kate, whose name has also been changed.

But after a long process of collecting letters of recommendation and communicating with UHS, most students who take time off for mental health reasons return to campus, bringing with them not only their bags and possessions but also a new perspective on college life.

HARVARD, TAKE TWO

When Partovi returned to campus after her leave of absence, she came back to the same routine she left nearly a year earlier—the same Opening Days, the same Community Conversations, and the same freshman year. Yet she arrived as a different person, with a different approach to living the life of a Harvard student, and even a different name.

Instead of her first name, Karina, Partovi began introducing herself outside of the classroom as Todd, the name that her mother had often used when she was a child.

“I didn’t want to be the person I was before,” Partovi said. “I was very ashamed of myself—I felt like there was a black cloud over my head.”

Students like Partovi say that taking time away from campus helped them gain perspective and better take on their Harvard experience, reinventing their priorities as college students.

“I think I grew up a lot and coming back I could handle Harvard a lot more,” said Ella, whose name has also been changed. “I know why I’m here, and I know what I want to get out of Harvard so it makes things a lot simpler and less overwhelming.”

Kate said that the process of taking a leave of absence and paying for her own therapy changed the way she approaches the challenges of life as a Harvard student.

“I would say that apathy is generally a bad trait for a student, but I think for a lot of Harvard students, it can be a good trait,” Kate said. “Now if I have a midterm, I’m substantially less stressed because having to study for a midterm is not the same stress as having to find out how to pay for treatment.”

Ella, who also took time off for mental health reasons, was unsatisfied with her concentration choice and had struggled to select appealing classes when she left Harvard in the middle of her sophomore year. But when she came back to Cambridge after her leave of absence, she was already determined to switch her concentration and was looking forward to her new academic path.

“I was really happy to be taking classes...and I actually enjoyed them,” Ella said of the first semester she was back from her leave. “I was doing what I really wanted to do.”

NO LONGER THE ‘BAD TEXTER’

Before George took his leave of absence, he was known as the “bad texter” by his friends, choosing to ignore text messages from them sometimes for days.

But after taking a leave plagued with bouts of loneliness, George has returned to Harvard with a new outlook on his social connections.

“I’m much better about writing people back now and making sure that I take the time to visit with people…. You have to work to get into relationships and maintain them, even in an environment like this,” George said. “I think those relationships are a lot stronger than they may have even been if I had spent ‘x’ many months more with them.”

Like George, other students who take time off for mental health reasons come back to campus with a new view of social connections, reevaluating their friendships and personal priorities.

After she returned, Ella similarly restructured her relationships and how she spent her time with the insight of her year off.

“I think coming back what I did differently from previous times is that I learned to be around people who are nurturing and just not spend time with people who I didn’t want to be with,” Ella said. “I cut down my friend groups a lot and spent times with the ones who were most important.”

But starting next semester, both George and Ella face the prospect of spending their senior year without many of their friends who will be graduating this spring.

“I’m a little bummed out that when they graduate, I’ll come back [to school] and all my friends will be dispersed around the world,” Ella said.

While Ella said that she has already made the transition to make her classwork what “grounds” her at Harvard, George is not so confident that he will be able to meet new people to fill his social circle.

“One problem I have with Harvard that I’ve accepted a bit more is that I haven’t found it to be such a welcoming social environment,” George said. “You know, you meet people through groups but if you don’t start joining groups early in your career, you don’t get to know that many people. There aren’t that many opportunities to meet new friends.”

George says that having to make new friends is a source of concern for him as he prepares to enter his last year at Harvard. “When I get stressed out next year, am I going to have the sort of the company of people who I care about, who I can say I really like their friendship[s] or will I be more on my own?”

Despite the uncertainty ahead, George and many others say that in the end, after navigating a complicated process of going home, getting better during a leave of absence, and coming back to Harvard, their time off was instrumental in their college lives.

“Given the way that things did play out, I think I can say that I don’t have any regrets,” George said. “I don’t know the type of person and student that I would have become if I hadn’t taken time off.”

—Staff writer Steven S. Lee can be reached at stevenlee@college.harvard.edu. Follow him on Twitter @StevenSJLee.

—Staff writer Dev A. Patel can be reached at dev.patel@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @dev_a_patel.

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