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The New Yorker
By Rachel Aviv
December 1, 2014
He tried to vomit, and when that failed he walked to the student health center and reported that he’d tried to commit suicide. Drowsy but communicative, he was transported by ambulance to the University Medical Center of Princeton, where he was closely monitored. By the next morning, he was feeling physically fine. His parents drove three hours to visit him at the hospital, and his friends brought him his homework. “The patient reports that he feels better today,” a psychiatrist wrote. “He felt that he knows now that he is supported and people do care.” W.P. told the psychiatrist that he had acted impulsively. “I could be so petty,” he said. “It was a very selfish thing to do.”
After three days in the hospital, W.P. was preparing to leave when his mother was informed, through a phone call from Princeton’s director of student life, that W.P. was no longer allowed to attend classes or return to his dorm. At a meeting the next day, two university administrators, who had reviewed some of W.P.’s medical records, expressed concern about the fact that he had checked himself out of the hospital a day early, against the hospital’s recommendation. They noted that this was his third suicide attempt in three years. (The previous two times he had been home with his parents, and, he said, the suicide attempts were pleas for attention.) The administrators urged him to voluntarily withdraw from the university for a year, so that he could get intensive psychiatric treatment. They explained that in cases where students pose a threat to themselves this was “always the outcome.” They told him that if he didn’t take a leave of absence he would be involuntarily withdrawn, which would be reflected on his transcript. They also instructed him that he was not permitted on campus.
W.P’s mother, accompanied by two security guards, collected his clothes and books from his dorm room, and he and his mother moved to a hotel. W.P. enrolled in a partial-hospitalization program near campus, where he attended group therapy sessions while keeping up with his coursework. Over the course of the next three weeks, he proposed a number of accommodations to alleviate the university’s concerns about his mental state—he offered to live off campus or take a reduced course load—but he was told that these conditions would “fundamentally alter the nature of a Princeton education.” W.P. began to feel as if the university was less concerned with protecting his health than with avoiding liability and preserving its own reputation. He wondered if the administrators were afraid that he would “blight the landscape and take away from the purity of the institution—the Orange Bubble, as we call it, where everyone is supposed to be happy and high-functioning,” he said.
In balancing the rights of students against the need for safety and order, many universities require suicidal students to leave campus. At Yale, Brown, George Washington University, Hunter College, Northwestern, and several other schools, students have protested these policies, by initiating litigation, submitting complaints to the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, or writing columns in campus newspapers. W.P. retained a lawyer, Julia Graff, an attorney at the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, who said that she gets calls every month from students who were asked to withdraw after their universities became aware of their mental disorders. “Universities don’t seem to understand that mental-health disabilities are chronic illnesses, and it is not uncommon to have to be briefly hospitalized now and again,” she told me. “It doesn’t mean that you are not competent to be a student.”
Two weeks after being banned from his classes, W.P. appealed Princeton’s decision. In a long letter, he noted that the university prides itself on its diverse student body—he pointed out that his residential college called itself “a place where individuals could be accepted for who they are”—and students with mental disabilities, he wrote, contributed to that diversity. “Who I am is someone who is struggling with depression, someone who is striving to achieve a well-rounded, useful education, someone trying to develop his values and find a place in the world,” he wrote.
W.P.’s private psychiatrist, to whom he’d been referred by Princeton’s health center, submitted a letter that stated that W.P. did not pose a threat to himself. “An important aspect of W.P.’s recovery is a sense of purpose,” the psychiatrist wrote. “Requiring a leave of absence and excluding him from the university community at this time could be detrimental to his health and well-being.”
The appeal was denied. On March 26th, the vice-president of campus life told W.P. in a letter that his enrollment would pose an “unacceptably high risk of substantial harm to your health and safety that cannot be mitigated by any reasonable modifications.” W.P. withdrew from school and left New Jersey. Later, he filed a federal lawsuit accusing Princeton of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Fair Housing Act Amendments. The lawsuit asserts, among other things, that the university refused to offer him accommodations for his disability and that it imposed conditions on him that were “more onerous and intrusive” than those placed on students with physical illnesses.
Last month, Princeton filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which it called “patently meritless.” According to the motion, “the core of this dispute can be simply stated: Princeton University refused to gamble with W.P.’s life.” The university is also opposing W.P.’s use of a pseudonym in the lawsuit. In a memorandum filed three weeks ago, the university argued that W.P. wants to “hurl his accusations from beneath a cloak of anonymity.”
During his year off, W.P. slept on a friend’s couch near his home town. He got a retail job and an internship working for a politician, and took classes at a nearby university. According to his lawsuit, he “experienced ongoing stress and embarrassment occasioned by his presence at home, rather than at school, and the questions that this situation generated on an almost daily basis.… His self-esteem had been demolished.” He adhered closely to the conditions that Princeton required for reënrollment: weekly therapy sessions and compliance with prescribed medications. In November of 2013, Princeton sent W.P.’s psychiatrist a questionnaire that asked whether W.P. had any motivational problems, interpersonal difficulties, obsessions, or compulsions; inquired about his medication compliance; and requested an estimation of his risk of relapse. The psychiatrist responded that W.P.’s mood had stabilized, and that he was “eager to do well in school and put the past behind him.”
When W.P. finally returned to campus, at the beginning of the 2013 spring semester, he had a smaller circle of friends than he’d imagined, and fewer people remembered him than he’d hoped. Among administrators, he felt “a little hunted,” but he said that his professors and other students were welcoming; they didn’t press him for details about why he’d been absent for a year. Now he has trouble even locating the reasons that he attempted suicide, an event he refers to as “the incident” or “the thing.” He recalls that he was upset about an eighty-dollar charge for a key he’d forgotten to return, but he doesn’t remember exactly why this setback led him to the conclusion that there was no more reason to live. His year away was a “growing experience, but not because Princeton made it so,” he said. “I had no perspective on how time does move on.”