Mental Health in Higher Education: A Discussion of Students’ Rights, Colleges’ Responsibilities, and Landmark Litigation

Monica Porter, J.D., Anashua Dutta, J.D., Maia Goodell, J.D., and Harrison "Harry" Fowler

Over 60%* of college and university students meet the criteria for one or more mental health disabilities, a nearly 50% increase from just a decade ago. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, increased national attention on mental health, and thanks to ongoing student advocacy, awareness of the need for institutions of higher education (IHEs) to address student mental health has increased and become more mainstream. When it is necessary to enforce the rights of students with mental health disabilities, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Fair Housing Act, and state and local laws provide protections against discrimination.

Speakers on this panel will discuss the rights of students with mental health disabilities and the obligations of IHEs, including how to bring a disability discrimination claim, how to request a reasonable accommodation, and affirmative defenses. Through the lens of recent litigation with Stanford University and ongoing litigation with Yale and Brown Universities, attorneys from the Bazelon Center and Vladeck, Raskin & Clark will share their experiences and lessons learned, including working with students, identifying legal claims, consulting with experts, and engaging the media. Workshop participants can submit questions to presenters ahead of the workshop so that presenters can screen, find themes, and ensure that peoples’ questions get answered during the presentation.

Learning objectives for the presentation include:

  • Understanding the rights of students with mental health disabilities on campuses and the responsibilities of institutions of higher education (IHEs)
  • Understanding the components of a claim against an IHE under federal disability laws and the value of federal agency investigations
  • Identifying what is a reasonable accommodation and how to request one
  • Understanding students’ medical privacy rights and identifying how much information students have to disclose to the school to enforce their rights under federal and state law
  • Appreciating how far the mental health disability rights field has come while advocating for increased and expanded protections

* Sarah Ketchen Lipson et. al, "Trends in College Student Mental Health and Help-Seeking by Race/ Ethnicity: Findings from the National Healthy Minds Study, 2013-2021," 306 J. Affective Disorders 138-147 (2022). ("In 2020–2021, >60% of students met criteria for one or more mental health problems, a nearly 50% increase from 2013.")