Facebook post highlights concerns with mental health policy
A former Washington University student’s public accusation of mental health mismanagement has sparked a campus dialogue on how the University handles psychological illness.
Amreet Mohanty was a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences struggling with social anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder when he sent an angry text message that he thinks the University interpreted as a threat. After the University intervened, Mohanty said he found himself victim to verbal abuse, was treated like a criminal and was ultimately forced to withdraw from the University.
Administrators were not able to comment on specific details of his story, posted on the “Washington University in St. Louis Class of 2015” Facebook group early Tuesday morning, because of privacy laws including the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department was not immediately able to locate any record as to whether Mohanty had been detained or arrested as his Facebook post suggested.
But the accusation has brought to light widespread student concerns about the obstacles Washington University students face in mental health resources, particularly from the school’s administration.
Mohanty said his own situation spiraled to a point where he felt distrustful of administrators and University staff. He said he went public with his story because the entire situation left him feeling powerless to do anything.
“I felt ganged up upon,” Mohanty said. “I did not post publicly out of spite like I was mad—I just posted publicly because they weren’t responding to my emails and did not know what to do.”
“I expressed frustration through a text message which used language which was not appropriate on a college campus, and I take full responsibility for that,” he said. “The text wasn’t a threatening one. It was just me expressing my anger and frustration.”
Members of the varsity men’s tennis team, of which Mohanty was a part, were familiar with the situation but were instructed by administrators both in the spring and following Mohanty’s Facebook post to remain silent on the issue, one player told Student Life.
Mental health is a growing problem both on the Danforth Campus and at colleges nationally. In the past seven years, the number of students taking medical leaves from the University has more than doubled, though those numbers also reflect students who take leave for physical health reasons.
According to results from the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment, 12 percent of Washington University students have been diagnosed with depression within the last year, Alan Glass, director of the Habif Health and Wellness Center, said. The previous time the survey was distributed, in 2007, that number was around 5 percent.
Glass said those figures are in line with other schools nationally, and the increase is largely due to more conditions being treatable than in the past.
A greater source of concern for students, though, is how the school handles mental health issues when they do arise.
A junior who went to Student Health Services at the end of her sophomore year to get counseling on her issues with depression said that in the three sessions she attended, she would talk a majority of the time and receive little to no advice back on what to do.
“I don’t know if it’s a recurring theme that it’s more of a place to vent and get everything off of your chest rather than actually receive help, but from my experiences and my friends’ experiences, that’s what I’ve heard,” she said.
While in the beginning, she thought it was a product of the specific therapist she was working with, after hearing back from a number of her friends about similar experiences, she decided to stop attending sessions.
“[The school] sort of gives us this list of things they have—like we have Uncle Joe’s, we have free SHS sessions, etc.—but when that stuff is actually put into practice, it’s just not enough, and it just doesn’t end up working as smoothly as it sounds it will,” she said. “It’s sad that there are a huge amount of people dealing with these mental health issues on campus, and even if they do decide to seek out these resources, I don’t think they end up being satisfied with them, and have to opt to suffer silently instead.”
Another junior who requested to remain anonymous said that his depression caused him to fall behind in school, resulting in grades that his Career Center advisor told him would make it near impossible for him to get into medical school.
“It just seemed unfair that I wouldn’t have the opportunity for a second chance,” he said. “I feel like this school sees mental health as a blemish…it’s just a spiral because you keep falling behind, which just makes you more and more upset.”
For some students, though, mental health conditions progress to the point where they are forced to take leaves of absence from the University.
One of Mohanty’s main frustrations with the University’s handling of his situation was, he said, that administrators were not forthcoming about declining his application—despite his personal physician’s approval—to return to campus after his medical leave. He claimed they threatened to detain him should he return to campus.
Glass said that the University goes along with recommendations of students’ personal physicians on whether their patients are fit to return the “vast majority” of the time. But he and Dean of Students Justin Carroll could not specifically comment on Mohanty’s attempt to return to campus.
Students who take mental health breaks from the University have to receive approval from the deans of their respective schools in order to return. That decision is often contingent on an evaluation by SHS, which looks at the recommendation of students’ personal physicians as well as their academic records and particular situations.
A major consideration is whether they will be able to return successfully to their studies.
“A lot of the time, [medical leave] is for an exacerbation of a chronic issue, and so then actually a huge [concern] is can we provide the necessary support for that student when they come back?” Glass said.
Some students are invited to come back but are encouraged to take a smaller course load, but 95 percent of students who take medical leave ultimately come back and finish their studies at the University, Glass said.
“Leaves happen in unfortunate life situations, but the leave process is not a bad thing,” Glass said. “It’s an inherently good process and extremely successful the vast majority of the time.”
At a Board of Trustees meeting last spring, undergraduate representatives to the board discussed the recent surge in mental health leaves on campus, reflective of a growing problem at the University and at colleges in general.
“I think the administration is fully aware that it’s something that needs to be worked on, so at this point, I think it’s about figuring out concrete steps to really address the issue,” Mamatha Challa, a 2013 graduate of the University and former undergraduate representative to the Board of Trustees, said.Data that the representatives presented to the board showed that one in four students within the past year were identified as having mental health conditions, and the rise in mental health leaves has significantly outpaced the growing number of leaves for physical health reasons. Challa said that it is important to realize that while mental health most affects students personally struggling, it also has effects on the overall University atmosphere.
“It’s important because it’s not only about the individuals [affected] but also about a ripple effect that occurs throughout the community. When one person is struggling with their mental health, it affects them, and it affects everyone that cares about them,” she added.
In the few days since Mohanty posted on Facebook, a number of students have expressed concern with the University’s silence on the matter as well.
At Student Union’s Wednesday night Senate meeting, about 60 students discussed how to move forward with improving mental health services on campus.
Senior Matt Re, president of SU, said he and a number of other people at the University recently spoke with mental health professionals from other universities as part of a report about the University’s mental health policies, which should come out in the next few weeks.
“People are aware that it is an issue,” Re said. “We were called to the meeting with this third party mostly to give our opinion of how we think things are handled now. And the general sentiment was that things are fairly negative and that things are not handled in the best way they could be handled.”
Meanwhile, Senate representative senior Austin Vanbastelaer said that based on the stories of people he’s talked to, the school is fairly accommodating to students with mental health concerns.
“I think that when we come here, we expect that the University is going to do all it can to help us. And I’m not saying that upon reflection it always appears that way, but I think that we have to trust that our administrators are acting in the most helpful way they can at the time and that they are doing their best throughout the process,” Vanbastelaer said.
Junior Abhishek Saxena, president of Active Minds, a campus group focused on spreading awareness about mental health issues, said that while the post was upsetting, he hopes that it will not keep University students from voicing their concerns about mental health.
“We have stuff like ‘Choices’ and ‘The Date’ at orientation, yet we have nothing about mental health, which is something that does affect a good amount of people in the student body,” Saxena said. “I don’t want this story to be disheartening to Wash. U. students because they need to know that there is help out there and there are people willing to listen through the school’s different resources.”
Carroll said that while the University does value transparency, there are some situations in which administrator’s hands are largely tied due to FERPA, HIPAA and privacy concerns more generally.
He said while the administration is unable to comment on Mohanty’s specific claims, he believes students will trust the University is doing everything in its power to help those with mental health issues.
“It’s what it is. Hopefully, students at the University who’ve had some experience here look at the institution and the community that we have in a broad way and judge the institution’s response and the entire community based on the experiences that they have and that their friends have,” Carroll said. “And that’s not to say that everyone has the same experience, but…others will have to judge whether that’s relevant to them or they feel that it’s their perception, too.”
Divya Kumar, Manvitha Marni, Sahil Patel and Michael Tabb contributed to this report.