Mental Health Issues on Campus: Blog Articles

Understanding Voluntary and Involuntary Leave

APRIL 18, 2019

Depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions can negatively impact a college student’s studies and grades, as well as other part of the college experience. Roommates, classmates, professors, and the campus at large may also be affected by a student’s mental health issues.

United Educators (UE) reviewed and analyzed 223 claims related to student mental health to learn how institutions can best assist students facing mental health challenges. Findings are outlined in “ Student Mental Health on Campus: A Review of Claims.”

One of the key lessons learned from the claims study was the importance of developing clear, easily understood medical leave and return policies—both voluntary and involuntary. Unfortunately, in 31 percent of the claims UE studied, students did not take a medical leave, and failed out of their school or program. UE offers the following recommendations for developing and implementing voluntary and involuntary medical leave and return policies.

Voluntary leave

The first step: Have a thorough voluntary medical leave and return policy. (For suggested best practices in drafting a policy, see Checklists: Evaluating Your Mental Health Policies.) Without a clear policy, a student may assume voluntary medical leave is punitive rather than a support mechanism.

Students should understand that administrators will work with them, should they choose to take voluntary medical leave. But if they fail out rather than asking for leave—as was the case in 31 percent of claims UE reviewed—there isn’t much administrators can do at that point.

UE recommends using voluntary medical leave whenever possible. Initiate a frank discussion involving the student and his or her parents. Usually after such a conversation, the student and family select a voluntary leave.

Here’s a real-world example of the importance of offering voluntary leave. A sophomore engaged in self-harming behavior and made escalating threats of suicide. Her mother shared concerns about her daughter’s safety with school administrators. Without first offering a voluntary medical leave, the school placed the student on an involuntary medical leave. The school didn’t base this on a policy and didn’t consult the student or her doctors and appeared more concerned with potential liability than the student’s welfare. There was no appeals process and no process to allow her to return to school. The student filed a lawsuit.

Involuntary leave

Your institution's policy must include a process for involuntary medical leave and return options, too. Administrators need to ensure students are aware of the policy and understand their responsibilities. Before resorting to involuntary leave: 

  • Considercreative alternatives. If a student doesn’t voluntarily seek help, institutions should look for other ways to help the student succeed.
  • Document student behavioral issues.Students with mental health conditions can be held accountable for behavior that violates campus disciplinary codes. Institutions should focus on the disruptive behavior and its impact on others on campus rather than any underlying diagnosis. Be sure to document any disciplinary actions. 
  • Know the law. Since 2010, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the U.S. Department of Justice has taken the position that students are not required to leave school if they engage in self-harm and are not a direct threat to others.

For more information, UE members can download “Student Mental Health on Campus: A Review of Claims.” Nonmembers can request access to the reports by emailing Learn more about student mental health and the risk of suicide on campus in this section of the study.