Colleges’ Obligations to Students with Mental Health Disabilities at Risk of Self-Harm

Thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), more students with disabilities are attending college, including students with mental health disabilities. In addition, more students with mental health disabilities are seeking reasonable accommodations to allow them to succeed in college. This greater inclusion has raised more and more complicated questions about the intersection of schools’ ADA obligations and their health and safety obligations to students with and without disabilities.

While most students with mental health disabilities will progress through school without incident, some will experience a mental health crisis during their college tenure. It is important that colleges be prepared to respond appropriately, and not based on assumptions, fears, or stereotypes about mental health disabilities.

The ADA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and other applicable civil rights laws provide the applicable principles for responses that are individualized, fair, and responsible, and that appropriately balance the civil rights of students with disabilities with the responsibilities of colleges to all their students.

In addition to prohibiting outright exclusion and different treatment of students with disabilities, the ADA prohibits the application of “overprotective rules and policies, failure to make modifications to existing … practices, exclusionary qualification standards and criteria, segregation, and relegation to lesser services, programs, activities, benefits … or other opportunities.” 42 U.S.C. § 12101(a)(5).

Mental health disabilities may require changes to schools’ general approaches to a variety of issues, such as admissions, enrollment, and other eligibility criteria (e.g., GPA floors, required courses), housing placements, course loads, testing, online learning, and mandatory or voluntary leaves of absence. In responding to requests for reasonable accommodations, as well as in responding to mental health crises or suicide threats, schools may impose legitimate safety requirements, if those requirements are necessary for safe operation, but not if they are overly broad, based on speculation, disproportionately enforced against students with disabilities, or if they apply inflexible consequences. Students returning to school after a mental health crisis must also be accommodated in ways that respond to both student and college needs, without punishing a student for his or her disability.