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Between the Lines of Harvard’s Leave of Absence Handbook

By Gemma J. Schneider, Crimson Opinion Writer
Gemma J. Schneider ’23, a Crimson Associate Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column, “Wilted Wellbeing,” usually runs on alternating Tuesdays.

From the editor: The following piece includes discussion of mental health struggles and suicide. We’ve compiled a few resources that might be useful to any readers in need of help or support. Please make sure to take care of yourselves — seeking help is always worthwhile.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 800-273-TALK (8255) or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

If you or someone you know needs help at Harvard, contact Counseling and Mental Health Services at (617) 495-2042. Several peer counseling groups offer confidential peer conversations; learn more here.

You can contact a University Chaplain to speak one-on-one at chaplains@harvard.edu or here.

On April 19, 2016, Nikki Daurio was walked to Harvard Counseling and Mental Health Services by a set of her closest friends on Harvard’s campus. Nikki had been brawling with the convergence of depressive symptoms, intensifying body pains, and pounding headaches since January – by April, amidst this insurmountable storm, she had carved out a note and a plan.

But Nikki’s friends didn’t know either of these two particular facts prior to that late April walk to CAMHS. Only when they watched her falter and retreat at the sight of a few passing dogs did they realize something was off. “They know I love dogs,” Nikki told me. “And didn’t stop to pet any of them.”

It’s noticing these subtle signs, Nikki explained, that turns a good friend into an advocate. And it was one of these friends — not CAMHS — who later connected Nikki, daunted by the idea of admitting herself to a hospitalized setting, with a former roommate who had gone to McLean Hospital the year before. It was this call that granted Nikki the courage she needed to check into McLean the very next day.

After voluntarily admitting herself into McLean on April 20, 2016, Nikki spent eight days in the hospital before returning to campus to finish out the semester. The following fall, she opted to take a leave of absence.

Fast forward to 2017, and the role of Nikki’s friends-turned-advocates had been completely reconfigured through Harvard University print: “Past issues regarding undue stress on your friends, roommates, and teammates have raised some concerns about your enrollment at the College,” a contract presented to her read. She etched her signature onto the contract, entwined with “terms and conditions” that would allow for her subsequent return to campus.

This misconstrual of Nikki’s experience — in this not-so-fine-print which casts her help-seeking behaviors as a burden to her friends — isn’t just misleading. It’s also dangerous, particularly given the well-established importance of talking about suicide in order to prevent it. And it wasn’t just a slip of words, but a contract for the archives; one which should presumably have been met with care and rigor and review.

The actual Harvard College Administrative Board contingencies – while fundamentally designed to promote students’ future wellbeing and safety – also take on a subtly punitive tenor. One section indicates that should Nikki miss a therapy visit, or otherwise “fail to comply” with treatment directives, her continued enrollment at the College could be jeopardized. Another condition allows the University, once approved by her provider, to monitor this compliance more directly, preemptively requiring that Nikki “agree to sign any additional authorization forms” that would enable designated University officials and clinicians to jointly monitor whether she was “cooperating.” These terms themselves are straightforward enough; and would clearly, in ideal circumstances, be leveraged by administrators to serve only their stated ends: That is, to see Nikki, or any signer, remain safe and “succeed at Harvard.”

But “terms and conditions” themselves cannot be wholly understood in isolation from the environment that they operate within. At Harvard, individual contracts like these, as well as universal policy terms, have instead become littered with evasive liability tacts – in which written guidelines have become twisted and lost in translation amid exchanges between University officials and students.

One student, who spoke with me under the condition of anonymity, claimed to have been signed onto a contract similar to Nikki’s after their Resident Dean learned of their eating disorder. The contract’s conditions, according to the student, included complying with a series of weekly weigh-ins at HUHS. When they eventually “dropped too much weight” and started struggling to meet treatment standards, the student alleges that they were made to leave the University within days.

“It wasn't even something I could resist,” the student told me. “I said what if I don't want to take a leave? They said, ‘no, you do not have a choice. You have to take this leave.’” The medical rationale, too, was lacking, based on the evaluations of the student's treatment team who, according to a note from the student’s parent that was sent to their Resident Dean at the time, understood the requirement to take a leave so “abruptly” to be “premature.”

“For a school to ask for students to take a leave means that there's a very serious manifestation,” said Michael A. Olivas, a higher education law expert and William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of Houston. “A concern that either can't be resolved during school, or that school itself is providing such a stressor, that it will not help you resolve.”

This pointedly perceptive intuition is, at a technical level, backed by Harvard policy — which designates mandatory leaves when the “student’s behavior poses a direct threat to the health or safety of any person.” But students’ quiet, hidden lived experiences paint a more difficult reality – one which reflects the all-too-readily interchangeable conflation between a student being a danger to themselves, and a danger to the University.

When the anonymous student petitioned to finish their in-person exams before returning home, they claim they were met with an approval and a caveat — they could take their tests, but they couldn’t live on, or enter, Harvard’s campus in the interim. And so, purportedly too unwell to remain a part of residential life, the student was instead left to stay — alone — within a nearby residence as they awaited their final exams.

It is in cases like these that Harvard’s twin goals of self-protection and student protection are not just at quiet odds with one another. Instead, they become actively antipodal ends of a perpetual and systematic game of tug-of-war. In this match, Harvard has the tools to implement its policies, and students are subject only to its arbitrary implementation – enabling the University, when push comes to shove, to preserve its lifeline threaded tightly by liability concerns.

A University spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the specific allegations of students Tuesday afternoon.

In a previous email inquiring about leave of absence policies, however, University spokesperson Rachael Dane sent me a short, two-line reply.

“As you know, page 44 of the Student Handbook explains the whole process for leaves,” it read. “We will not have further comment.”

Yet nowhere in this handbook’s pages could I find the stories — or the institutional practices that shaped them — that were illuminated throughout the course of my reporting. Perhaps that’s because institutional policies are not only about inky dents on canvas, or about pages of simplified rules. But the accounts that I have gathered since then, some of which are still untold, suggest that there’s much more to this mismatch between Harvard policy and practice.

Gemma J. Schneider ’23, a Crimson Associate Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column, “Wilted Wellbeing,” usually runs on alternating Tuesdays.

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