Withdrawal offers chance to address mental illness
Ann Marie Jakubowski | Tuesday, October 7, 2014
During the spring semester of 2014, 29 undergraduate students withdrew from the University.
Some left because of illness, some because of personal matters and some left to seek treatment for mental health-related concerns.
In the fall 2013 semester, 42 undergraduates withdrew. Seventeen more students decided between semesters not to return to Notre Dame after winter break last year.
Among graduate and professional students, 17 withdrew last spring, and 29 withdrew in the fall.
Associate Vice President for Student Services Bill Stackman said in his experience, many students on campus are aware of mental health concerns and are interested in taking care of themselves and their peers. When he meets with someone contemplating withdrawal for any reason, he said his goal is to make sure the student knows his or her options, to make sure they don’t feel like they’ve done something wrong and to make sure when the time comes, they’re “in a good place to come back and hit the ground running.”
“I sent a card to every single student who left last year, when they were home,” he said. “They’d get a card from me, and basically it was a spirit of ‘good for you for recognizing the need to take care of yourself and get the help you need.’”
The Office of Student Affairs tries to make the withdrawal and readmissions process as simple as possible and flexible enough to meet the needs of each student, Stackman said. Students can voluntarily withdraw at any point in the semester after meeting with the dean of their college and a case manager from Student Affairs.
The requirements for readmission depend somewhat on a student’s reasons for leaving, Stackman said. Everyone needs a letter, an application form and an essay discussing their reasons for leaving, what they did while they were away to take care of themselves and how they’re prepared to come back.
Each case is different, though, and for some the process is easier than for others. Senior Travis Marshall-Roth planned to graduate in May 2014 but withdrew for the spring 2013 and fall 2013 semesters to address his depression. He’s now on track to graduate in May 2015, but said the withdrawal process was “the worst Notre Dame experience I’ve ever had.”
“Having to decide okay, do I want to withdraw or not — that’s not a trivial thing,” Marshall-Roth said.
Marshall-Roth has struggled with depression for more than 10 years, he said, and “things started going really downhill” when he was taking more than 20 credits per semester as a sophomore chemistry major in 2011. He went to class, worked in a research lab and studied around the clock and slept “maybe three hours per night.”
“That’s not really a good way to live,” he said. “I chalk it up to the extreme stress that I’d partially put myself into, partially not. … I was feeling more and more isolated.
“And it was sort of like a massive downward spiral.”
He began cutting himself in the fall semester of 2012 for the first time and experienced suicidal thoughts, he said.
“I was just completely depleted,” he said. “And I was like, I can’t do this anymore.”
Marshall-Roth met with a counselor at the University Counseling Center (UCC) and began “a medication roulette,” he said. He was eventually hospitalized the weekend before final exams began after telling a friend he had thought about suicide.
He was told he could come back and take the exams at the beginning of the next semester, he said, because his grades overall were good.
“So I came back and was basically in the same situation all over again within two weeks,” Marshall-Roth said. “I took the exams, then I was put in the hospital again, and this time it was 10 days.”
He withdrew formally in the second week of the semester, he said.
“I just didn’t want to be here. I went home and for the first four months I sat in my room and looked at my wall because that’s all I could do,” he said. “Just like a blank page, nothing going on. Because I was so depleted and depressed I couldn’t do anything else. I was sleeping 16 hours a day.”
Eventually, he started intensive therapy, he said, and began taking a couple classes at a local university. He contacted Student Affairs in April and the next deadline for readmission was October 1, he said.
Stackman said currently, there isn’t a set requirement that withdrawn students take two full semesters off. However, the time frame often depends on what point he or she left in the semester — to be readmitted in the spring semester, students must turn in application materials by Oct. 1. To be back for the fall semester, the deadline is March 1.
“[If you withdraw in October or November], let’s say, your application deadline is going to be March 1,” Stackman said. “So you won’t be looking at the spring to come back, you’ll be looking at the [next] fall even though you left in the fall.
“We’re trying to say to students, sometimes if you’re leaving, to go for two weeks and have a break and come back may not be enough. But what we do, rather than having a hard-and-fast, one-size-fits-all approach to this, is allow the student to go home, get the care they need and then apply to come back. Because in some cases, they are ready to come back, and we don’t want to hurt them just because of a hard-and-fast rule.”
When considering withdrawal, Stackman said students may consider practical matters as well – anyone who withdraws before Nov.1, for example, does not have a “W” mark on his or her transcript. The earlier in the semester someone withdraws, the more tuition money he or she receives back.
“I will plant the seeds early,” Stackman said. “Even back in August and September, when I see a student struggling and not going to class, I’ll say ‘just know that withdrawal is a possibility and this is what it would look like.’ … Part of our job is to inform a student about the withdrawal process and the times to make that decision.”
Marshall-Roth said he was frustrated by tests required by the UCC and the lack of correspondence from the University while he was away. At the time, Student Affairs only had one case manager handling all students, and Stackman said “it was just grabbing on to students and trying to get them through that immediate crisis that we were in.”
Now, the University is trying to make a point to reach out to withdrawn students more, Stackman said. Erica Kelsey is one of two case managers now, and she said she meets with each of her students before he or she leaves to understand their story and then keeps in touch with each while they’re away.
“Now, we’re also doing readmission support groups on campus for students that are back,” she said. “It could be students readmitted for any reason at all, not specific to mental health, but the first meeting [this year] was an opportunity for students to give me feedback on what the withdrawal and readmission process was like for them.
“The best way to improve a system is to hear from the people who have been through it. … I know a lot of students feel like when they leave, they’re the only one that left, and seeing other people that maybe left for similar reasons really might help them feel more comfortable and get integrated into the University faster.”
Marshall-Roth said his readmission process was stressful because it came down to the last week of the fall 2013 semester, in the days before the University closed for winter break.
“It was a big mess,” he said. “There are people that have an easier time, though. I think my situation was a little weird and extraordinary but it’s an interesting case study. Pretty much every part of the process was sub-optimal, I thought.”
Marshall-Roth said he worked out his class schedule two days before the semester began and when he arrived back to campus, he had no idea where he would live.
“I’d been offered a place in a triple in Sorin, but I didn’t really want to be there with other people, sharing a room with two other guys who were quite a bit younger than me,” he said.
He ended up moving off campus and became involved with Notre Dame’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. He currently serves as the group’s vice president and is looking at applying to graduate school for chemistry.
Stackman said they are currently reviewing the readmission process “not because it’s out of whack, but … because we always know there are opportunities to improve and make things better.”
“We feel pretty good about the work that we do, we feel pretty good about our services, our programs, our systems,” he said. “But we’re getting useful feedback from students too, so we’re saying okay, how can we improve it? How can we improve it as you walk out the door and how can we improve it as you’re going through the process and making your decision?”
The Office of Continuous Improvement is overseeing the review, Stackman said, and they have already added a second case manager to expand their ability to meet student needs.
After his year away, Marshall-Roth said he was “so ready” to be back.
“It’s kind of weird, though, because I have a very different opinion of this place now, having been through all of this,” he said. “Some friends, after they found out what was going on with me, they didn’t want to talk to me anymore, that kind of thing.
“I guess I’ve been sort of disappointed in the caliber of a lot of the students here in terms of their compassion and their ability to actually look after other people, but I’ve been impressed with other people. I’ve made other friends.
“Depression is the kind of thing you never really get rid of. You always have it. But you learn to realize that it’s a gift, instead of a curse. … Everybody has their own challenges, and you can make it. … I’m doing just fine now.”