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A photo of Maryland politicians, alongside Cameron Carden and his mother, Gay Green-Carden,at the signing of the Cameron Carden Act.

Governor Wes Moore (center, sitting) and Cameron Carden (standing, in the light gray suit) are pictured here at the signing of the Cameron Carden Act of 2024 in April.

De’Von Brown

When Cameron Carden was a student at Salisbury University on Maryland’s eastern shore in 2019, he found his mental health rapidly declining after racist vandalism—including one message that referenced a 2012 school shooting—appeared on campus.

He wanted to leave the university mid-semester but was worried about the money his parents had spent on his education. He and his mother, Gay Green-Carden, asked administrators for a refund for the remainder of the semester but they refused, saying mental health was not covered by their withdrawal policy. (Salisbury University spokesman Jason Rhodes told Inside Higher Ed in an interview that he could not speak to specific cases, but that the university has long informally allowed students to withdraw due to mental health issues.)

“I tried to focus on my studies. I tried to reach out and seek help. But my concerns over my own safety were all-encompassing and made it impossible to function,” Carden said, describing his ordeal in a hearing before the Maryland General Assembly’s House Appropriations Committee in February. “This was no different than if I had suffered a debilitating physical injury: with every fiber in my being, I wanted to continue my education, but it was simply impossible to accomplish.”

The hearing was for legislation, which Governor Wes Moore signed at the end of April, that aims to prevent students from having to weigh their mental health against the cost of higher education. Nicknamed the Cameron Carden Act of 2024, the law requires Maryland’s 14 public universities to offer formal withdrawal policies that include mental health as a valid reason to stop out. It also guarantees that students who withdraw mid-semester for mental and physical health–related reasons receive a refund for the remainder of the term. Experts say it may be the first law of its kind in the nation.

Mental health withdrawal policies have made headlines in recent years; in November 2022, The Washington Post published an investigative report detailing how difficult it was for students who took a medical leave from Yale University to return to the Ivy league institution. More recently, Inside Higher Ed published a story outlining how Howard University had mishandled a student’s withdrawal request, leaving him with Fs on his transcript which made it exceedingly difficult for him to transfer to another institution.

Experts argue that overly burdensome withdrawal policies and procedures discourage students from stepping away from their studies to focus on their own wellbeing, leaving them worried about losing tuition money or being unable to return to an institution they love. This can further damage their mental health.

“There is broad agreement that colleges and universities should encourage students to seek and connect with resources as needed and should foster environments where students feel safe to do so,” wrote Monica Porter Gilbert, a policy and legal advocacy attorney with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, in an email to Inside Higher Ed. “For students seeking a break from school for their health, including mental health, they should be able to retain access to campus spaces, resources, and their community at large, in addition to being able to retain university-sponsored health insurance.”

‘A Better Experience’

Shaneka Henson, a state delegate in Maryland and the lead sponsor on the bill, has been trying to pass the Cameron Carden Act for three years. She drafted the bill after the Cardens, who live in her district, asked her for help in working with Salisbury to get a refund, though she was ultimately unsuccessful.

Now, three years later, Henson is relieved other students won’t face the same situation.

“It was really gratifying to see the bill pass this year, to see Cameron Carden and his family come back three years in a row … ready to share their story as a family,” Henson said.

Prior to the new legislation, each of the institutions within the University System of Maryland—which encompasses all but two of Maryland’s public universities—already had policies allowing students to withdraw if impacted by extenuating circumstances including illness or hospitalization, according to testimony by Andy Clark, the USM’s assistant vice chancellor for government relations. However, not every university’s existing policy specified that mental illness was included.

Mike Lurie, a spokesperson for the university system, told Inside Higher Ed in an email that the system is currently consulting with campuses on how to update their policies to comply with the law, which will take effect in July.

Rhodes, the spokesman for Salisbury, said that the university is in the process of formalizing its mental health withdrawal policy in accordance with the new law. He hopes the changes will help the university better communicate to students “what that process is, who to see about that process, what paperwork or other documentation they will need, and will hopefully get them a better experience.”

“Neither Salisbury nor any [nonprofit] university is a business; we’re a public university so we’re here to serve our students in the state of Maryland. This process being put in place is going to help with that,” he said.

John Lane, vice president for academic affairs and equity initiatives for the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, said that legislation typically aims to support students’ mental health through funding and resources rather than through university policies, as the Cameron Carden Act of 2024 does.

He sees this bill as a promising solution to the problems students often face when trying to withdraw or take a leave of absence from their institutions, whether for mental health reasons or otherwise.

It’s encouraging, he said, “to see withdrawal policies, as this legislation does, as an opportunity to support students and limit the harm that may be done to [their] achievement and their progression, academically.”

He said future legislation relating to mental health withdrawal might benefit from including funds institutions can use to make such processes even easier, perhaps by hiring a staff member who can work closely with students who are seeking—or returning from—a leave of absence.

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