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The Dartmouth
April 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Verbum Ultimum: A Step in the Right Direction

The College’s new time away for medical reasons policy includes excellent changes that will benefit students, but in practice, some provisions may still put students at risk.

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Dartmouth has finally instituted long overdue changes to its medical leave policy, which has been renamed to the “time away for medical reasons” policy. Some of these changes went into effect immediately, while other provisions will become active in January. These changes are a victory for students and place the College one step closer to an environment that puts the health of its community first. However, there are still major problems with the policy that have not been directly addressed. As an Editorial Board, we would like to review the changes which we believe are worthy of special commendation, but also highlight several concerns that may jeopardize the new policy’s ultimate effectiveness.

Under this new policy, students on leave will, in most circumstances, have campus access to  public facilities like dining halls, go to public events at Dartmouth and apply for jobs advertised to the public. They will also be able to keep their Dartmouth email addresses while on leave for two years. This is a huge step in the right direction: If the medical leave policy is intended to allow students to heal, then in some cases, forcing students to disconnect from their campus lives and support networks can do more harm than good. We welcome that students on medical leave will now be allowed to remain a part of their campus community if they feel it will be beneficial in their recovery.

We were also happy to learn that students on leave will now have continued access to Dartmouth’s teletherapy options through UWill. This gives students free access to a therapy outlet they can use from wherever they are. However, while we think that access to UWill is a positive change, we do want to stress that UWill is not a substitute for proper psychotherapy. UWill’s capabilities are limited — not allowing for in-person interaction and capping appointments at 30 minutes — and are not sufficient for all cases. 

The new policy also gives students who take leave for medical reasons continued, need-based aid for Dartmouth Student Group Health Plan for up to a year after their current plan ends. This one is a no brainer. Health insurance is key to ensuring those on leave can access the care they need to recover. Health care is profoundly unaffordable in America, and anything that gets between students and their insurance risks making them unable to afford proper medical care. . .

Time away from Dartmouth can be incredibly beneficial to a student’s well-being, and many College deans and health professionals work with students with empathy and care. However, despite these positive changes, we still have reservations about the retention of mandatory medical leave — now called “required time away for medical reasons.” An end to the College’s ability to require a student to be put on medical leave against their will was perhaps the most sought-after change among students. Now, that wish goes unfilled. 

Although the new policy states that “requiring a student to take time away from Dartmouth for medical reasons is rare,” previous reporting from The Dartmouth reveals that there are students who are pressured into taking “voluntary” medical leaves, making those claims suspect. In the past, some students have been presented with the “choice” of taking voluntary medical leave or mandatory medical leave — which is not a real choice to begin with. The fear of mandatory medical leave has previously discouraged some students from seeking counseling or other mental health resources at Dartmouth, out of fear that being honest with Dick’s House counselors could cause someone to force them to take medical leave. We are encouraged by the updated language and positive changes that the new policy provides, but before it can truly help students, there have to be more safeguards to prevent students from taking involuntary leave that may be harmful to their well-being. 

We are also concerned  about students who are taking time away losing the ability to see Dick’s House counselors, psychiatrists and other resources. Members of this Editorial Board have heard stories of students who received prescription medications exclusively through Dick’s House, and then lost access to both mental health treatment and other medications once on time away — throwing a wrench into their treatment plan. Finding another provider that a student trusts, can afford and is convenient to visit — all under severe time pressure — can be difficult under the best of circumstances, and if a student is already struggling with severe mental health concerns, then this can become a huge hurdle to overcome. If the time away for medical reasons policy is truly centered around a desire to see student health improve, then the College should work with students on a case-by-case basis to find potential solutions. To their credit, Dick’s House does make an effort to facilitate a  connection with an at-home counselor or psychiatrist before the student leaves Dick’s House counseling, but this new provider may not meet all of the students’ individualized needs. 

We do want to stress that the time away for medical reasons policy is incredibly nuanced, and this is just a brief overview of our initial impressions of certain elements. It is in no way comprehensive, and these are many other elements which deserve both commendation and critique. We also do not want to leave readers with the view that the new policy changes will necessarily lead to negative outcomes. As of now, they remain merely words on paper, and we will wait and see how they are actually implemented in practice. Many of these changes are extremely promising, and we are thrilled to see the College moving in the right direction. But as the College unveils more updates to the policy with the release of its strategic plan next month, we hope that it addresses the flawed implementation of the previous medical leave policy, and how it plans to prevent harmful effects in the future. The changes announced are a great leap forward from where we were. We sincerely hope there are more leaps to come.

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, the executive editors and the editor-in-chief.