Report Examining Medical Leave of Absence Process Released

FILE PHOTO: DANIEL SMITH/THE HOYA Emeritus Director of the University of Delaware Counseling Center Dr. John Bishop released a report on Georgetown's medical leave of absence process June 28.

FILE PHOTO: DANIEL SMITH/THE HOYA
Emeritus Director of the University of Delaware Counseling Center Dr. John Bishop released a report on Georgetown’s medical leave of absence process June 28.

Georgetown’s medical leave of absence process is achieving its goals, but could benefit from changes including increasing communication between students on an MLOA and the university and increasing training for university staff, according to a report released by Emeritus Director of the University of Delaware Counseling Center Dr. John Bishop on June 28.

Bishop, who was hired by Georgetown to conduct the report, visited Georgetown’s campus in the spring, when he conducted two focus groups and met with two student representatives from the Mental Health Advisory Board, Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson and Assistant Vice President for Student Health Vince WinklerPrins.

Bishop also received statements from 22 students who had previously taken an MLOA from the university, all of whom had met the objectives of their MLOAs before returning to campus.

Georgetown’s MLOA process has come under the spotlight in the past year, after some students complained of difficulty returning to campus following a MLOA. The MHAB, which comprises eight students and eight adult members from the community, was set up this year by the Division of Student Affairs to ensure an ongoing conversation about mental health at the university.

The report recommends six changes to the MLOA procedures. The recommendations focus on increasing communication between the student and the university, training staff and faculty involved with the MLOAs and establishing a minimum amount of time per leave to maximize effectiveness.

According to CAPS Director Phil Meilman, between 60 and 80 students contact CAPS requesting an MLOA each year. CAPS then evaluates each request individually and recommends a duration for the MLOA, as well as steps for a smooth recovery and return to campus, which is ultimately approved or denied by the deans’ offices.

The report estimates that an average medical leave lasts six months, but that 30 to 40 percent of students request a second MLOA.

Out of the 22 students surveyed in the report who had taken an MLOA, 14 said the MLOA benefitted them “a great deal,” four said it was “moderately” beneficial and another four said it was “slightly” beneficial. None of the students said the MLOA had “no benefit” or had made their problems worse.

Bishop said these ratings, while overall positive, do not suggest that all student participants were happy with every aspect of their MLOA experience.

“Some were discontent with how their particular situation was handled,” Bishop wrote in the report. “Yet others characterized their experience with the MLOA as a ‘life saver.’ Some acknowledged being more objective about their experience now than they may have been at an earlier point in time.”

Bishop said many students expressed confusion during their time away as to the expectations of the MLOA and its impact on their relationship with the university.

“In some cases, students purposely postponed fulfilling some of the MLOA requirements. A few students found it challenging to find appropriate sources of treatment or an appropriate daily activity to fulfill the expectations of the MLOA,” Bishop wrote. “Several wondered how to explain the ‘Ws’ that would appear on their transcript as a result of the MLOA.”

The university places a “W” for withdrawal on a student’s transcript when they go on an MLOA, which could potentially hinder a student’s academic progress or post-graduate plans.

This uncertainty did not abate when the students re-enrolled in the university, according to Bishop. Students were unsure whom to contact and what they had to do in order for them to successfully return.

“In some cases, the specific person or advocate who was involved with the student at the time the MLOA was granted was no longer at the institution. Some students were not sure if they were touching all of the bases that had to be contacted upon their return (e.g., housing, financial aid, etc.),” Bishop wrote. “More than one student expressed frustration about being referred to seek on-going counseling off-campus upon return, rather than being able to use CAPS for that purpose, though CAPS is not designed to provide ongoing long-term care.”

The students Bishop interviewed also had conflicting views regarding how involved the university should be in checking on the students’ mental health after their return. Some felt regular meetings should be mandatory, others wished to be treated like all other students.

Director of Residential Ministry Rev. Jonathan Rice, who co-chairs the university’s Mental Health Advisory Board, said the report should help Georgetown better address mental health issues on campus.

“I’m very pleased with Dr. Bishop’s report and his recommendations, and look forward to making continued progress on issues of mental health at Georgetown,” Rice wrote in an email to The Hoya.

Counseling and Psychiatric Services is currently expanding its resources after university efforts this year.

Three new psychologists have already joined the university’s counseling staff, including Dr. Daniel Phillip, who is filling a previously vacant position; Dr. Michael Tartaglia, who joins the main campus; and Dr. Lauren Pompeo, who will be at the Law Center.

CAPS is also looking to hire someone to fill a new MLOA case manager position in the Office of Student Outreach and Support and a full-time psychiatrist for the 2016-17 academic year.

CAPS is seeking funding for the creation of a clinical case manager position within CAPS, a position both the university and the report proposed. CAPS is seeking funding for the position for next year, according to Meilman.

The MHAB has made additional recommendations for potential changes to the university’s MLOA policy, which include allowing students to access their guidelines and expectations electronically, developing on-campus support groups and compiling a list of resources available to students returning from an MLOA.

The university is working to implement the report and MHAB’s recommendations, according to Olson.

“The MHAB’s recommendations, and several of the report’s recommendations — like hiring a new case manager to provide students additional support in the MLOA process — are already in the process of being implemented,” Olson wrote in an email to The Hoya. “We look forward to working with the MHAB and [Georgetown University Student Association] on addressing the additional recommendations going forward.”

Georgetown’s current MLOA policy, as stated on the CAPS website, is designed to ensure that students are given the personalized support necessary to address any medical issues they face while at the university that limit their ability to function normally or safely.

Scott Dennis (COL ’16), who was a member of the Mental Health Advisory Board, said the diverse reasons for students needing to use the MLOA process can make change difficult.

“The difficulty with changing the codification is that it removes our ability to manage on a case-by-case basis, which can be extremely helpful in some cases,” Dennis wrote in an email to The Hoya. “But at the same time, the lack of specificity leads to a lot of gray area in which for people to fall. So it’s a bit of a rock-and-a-hard-place situation.”

Dennis said Bishop’s recommendations make sense in terms of putting students at the forefront of the policies and giving students a say in the decisions that affect their future.

“A lot of the guidelines laid out in the medical leave process are done so due to legal reasons, which makes them difficult to shift,” Dennis wrote. “However, having better case management, and asking for input from the students who go on leave, those sound like common sense reforms.”

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