Letter from AHEAD President: Jamie Axelrod

Dear Friends and Esteemed Colleagues,

I wanted to write to you today about something that has been on my mind a lot this current academic year. The subject is mental health on campus and the students we work with who experience mental health-based disabilities. As someone who was originally trained as a mental health therapist, I guess it feels natural that I would think about mental health issues. However, a few things have come to my attention this year which have spurred me to think about this more closely.

The first thing is, the analytics for the National College Center for Students with Disabilities (NCCSD) website shows that one of the most frequently visited pages on the site is the page which provides information on Mental Health Crisis resources. I am not sure why, but that surprised me. Of all the resources provided to students, parents, faculty and staff through the NCCSD, I wasn’t thinking that page would be one of the most visited. My experience over the last ten years is that the number of students with mental health disabilities who self-identify to Disability Resource offices, has grown significantly. On my campus it is close to 20% of the students we work with. That said, this piece of data was striking to me.

The second thing came through my recent participation on my institution's “Enrollment Petition Committee.” This is the committee which reviews student petitions for retroactive class withdrawals and requests to backdate those withdrawals in order to receive tuition refunds. Our school has a broad policy, which allows students to request retroactive withdrawals for a number reasons, including “personal” reasons and “medical” reasons. We meet every two weeks and review between 15 and 30 petitions each meeting. When I started on the committee I was unprepared for the number of petitions being requested based on mental health conditions. I was also unprepared for the percentage of that set of students who had never been in touch with our office. It really got me thinking about the barriers that exist on our campus for students with mental health-based disabilities. It also made me realize that we are clearly not as knowledgeable about those barriers and how to remove them, as we need to be.

This leads me to the third and final thing. It is a bit more practical. Every time I go to my local grocery store, I see a former student there who works the checkout counter. I know they are a former student because I worked with them when they were attending the University. They are a person with a mental health disability. When I think about my time working with them, what I remember most is being in the mindset of what academic adjustments I could reasonably make to provide curricular access. That set of adjustments seemed pretty limited and ultimately was not effective in removing the barriers they faced to earning their degree. That said, this student has made their way and seems to be doing well. However, it reminds me that I need to broaden my view and approach to gaining a fuller understanding of what students with mental health disabilities experience as barriers on our campus and do an even better job in working to remove them.

Judging by my conversations with you all and the questions I hear echoed regularly around this topic, I know I am not alone in this. I encourage us all to think about how we can learn more about our students with mental health disabilities and how we can work with them to create more access and better outcomes. I hope you will join me in that exploration. Thank you all for your contributions as part AHEAD and have a wonderful holiday season!

Jamie Axelrod President, Association on Higher Education and Disability