February 25, 2013

After Leaves of Absences, Students ‘Come Back Alone’

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At an institution like Cornell, some students say it is not uncommon to pack in more than 18 credits a semester and still graduate in four years. Often students strive to achieve even more than that. With this collective mentality to graduate within four years, it may be surprising that more than 300 students take a leave of absence from the University each year.

On average, 120 to 140 of these leaves are health-related, according to Greg Eells, director of Counseling and Psychological Sciences and associate director of Gannett Health Services. The majority of health leaves — about 80 or 90 percent — are for emotional or psychological reasons, according to Eells.

For students that return to Cornell after their leave of absence — a period of time that can last from six months to 10 years, according to Eells — it can be difficult to reintegrate on campus.

“When students return, they come back alone,” said Casey Carr, assistant dean of students and advisor for Cornell Minds Matter. “Often, all the people they knew when they were here are gone or in different phase[s] of their li[ves]. There’s no one here to welcome them back.”

Helen Cowan ’14, who said her stress led to a major medical issue and hospitalization at the end of the fall semester in 2011, said deciding to take a medical leave was “a really tough decision to make.”

“I was pretty ashamed of it at the time,” Cowan said. “I didn’t really know anyone who had gone on leave, and it just wasn’t a thing that my friends had done.”

Due to the stigma that exists toward taking time off –– and toward mental illness in general –– the final decision to take a leave often does not occur until students develop symptoms that incapacitate them.

“There’s a certain ‘you have to finish this’ mentality that I think Cornell is really good at promoting,” Cowan said.

Amanda Nichols ’14 said that although Cornell students can be very understanding of other people’s limits, they rarely apply such leniency to themselves.

“When I decided to take leave, I was basically unable to go to class,” Nichols said. “I was in and out of Cayuga Medical, getting testing done and everything else … it should have just been like, ‘No, I should just go home and do this at home,’ but I was like ‘No, I have to finish.’”

In an effort to provide support for students who return from their leave of absence, CMM has been hosting weekly meetings to discuss their struggles, successes and experiences, according to Carr.

Some students who regularly attend the meeting said they had not been familiar with how many students actually take a leave of absence every year, or that the stress that can come from schoolwork is not always something that can just be “pushed through.”

“For me, [my leave] was eye-opening,” Cowan said. “Most people here are really stressed out about something or other, and some are okay with dealing with it, and I can’t deal with it because I have a health problem. Becoming more aware of my own moods, my own health … that’s what I spent most of my leave doing, just actually figuring out what was happening with me.”

Students said returning to Cornell brought a host of obstacles. Readjusting to the rigor of coursework, feeling a pressure to get caught up, and even having problems with housing paperwork, course enrollment, insurance and funding were common stressors to the students who had returned from leave.

“One thing I question with how Cornell handles things is that when you decide to take a leave, they throw a bunch of things at you at once,” said Theresa Moniz ’15.

Nichols echoed her sentiments.

“There were classes that I couldn’t enroll in, and I didn’t even know what classes I was going to take,” Nichols said. “I was in this weird situation where I did not get into some of my classes until the third week. It was really stressful, and when you’re coming back from leave, you kind of want to at least have that down. You’re overwhelmed, you haven’t seen people in a year or more, you’re getting back into the swing of things at Cornell, and then your schedule is up in the air — that’s really bad.”

However, despite facing difficulties, students said the weekly group meetings have been very helpful.

“If you just have that fact somewhere in your head that there are a lot of people who go on leave, it makes it so much easier to make the decision and to know that you’re not the only one,” Cowan said.

Carr said she thinks it is positive to see these students have benefited from leave, and said that she believes students do not need to be afraid of making use of the flexibility that they are offered in the form of medical leave.

“Unless [students] take care of their physical and mental health, it will be difficult for them to thrive in their academic life,” Carr said.

Original Author: Noah Rankin