Recent lawsuit spotlights mental health unease within Quinnipiac PA program

Chatwan Mongkol, Staff Writer

In light of a discrimination lawsuit against Quinnipiac University, former physician assistant students told The Chronicle that those in the program have been in an “unsupportive environment” that runs their mental health “into the ground.”

“I feel like Quinnipiac, the PA program specifically, has a really toxic environment, that I think (is) kind of emblematic of a core problem with a lot of medical training, which is very militaristic,” said a PA program graduate who agreed to speak with The Chronicle under an anonymity condition for fear of retaliation. 

In March, former physician assistant student Alexandra Faulkner, who was clinically diagnosed with depression and anxiety, sued Quinnipiac for allegedly expelling her based upon her need for disability accommodations. She accused that the university’s “hostile and discriminatory environment” led to more severe mental distress.

The university did not comment on the pending litigation.

Former physician assistant students claimed that the environment of the program was detrimental to their mental health. (Jack Spiegel and Daniel Passapera )

Another former PA student Seren Erol said she was “relieved” when she heard of the lawsuit and proud of her classmate for being able to put it in motion.

“It’s something I wanted to do as well, but I didn’t have the resources to or the mental-emotional capacity to do it,” said Erol, who was also dismissed from the program in fall 2019 after she failed her end-of-rotation exam.

Erol said what Faulkner described in the lawsuit is “very accurate,” noting that the PA program has “a very cutthroat environment.” Everyone down from faculty members to clinical preceptors could be very unprofessional, she said.

Part of what the two former students described as toxic included a setting that incentivizes students to keep problems they faced to themselves over fears of retaliation from the program and being unsuccessful in the medical field.

The anonymous PA graduate told The Chronicle their daily routine included being on campus from 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on a daily basis with a “tremendous” amount of work on weekends, essentially isolating them from their social life.

“It was a common theme that if you did ask for help, you were essentially singled out and maybe not given a fair chance,” Erol said. “We would all just encourage each other to not ask for help after that.”

Multiple sources with knowledge or experience with the PA program confirmed the former students’ sentiment.

It was a common theme that if you did ask for help, you were essentially singled out and maybe not given a fair chance. We would all just encourage each other to not ask for help after that.

— Seren Erol, former PA student

In a statement to The Chronicle, Dean of School of Health Sciences Janelle Chiasera said she and Chair of PA Studies Tim Ferrarotti have an open-door policy and “always want to hear from students, whether it’s to share feedback, concerns or ideas on how to enhance their learning experience.”

“Quinnipiac’s PA program is committed to giving all of its students the support they need and delivering a high-quality academic experience and clinical training that will position them to be exemplary PAs and PA leaders upon successful completion of the program,” Chiasera said.

Ferrarotti did not respond to The Chronicle’s requests for comments. Former Chair of PA Studies Dennis Brown, who is now at the University of New England, declined to comment on the views toward the program and whether he was aware of such concerns during his time as a department chair, from 2012-21.

Another source who also asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation said they hope this lawsuit shines a light on concerns around mental health among health care students. They emphasized the need for more counseling resources because they had seen people breaking down and crying in classes, which they believed wouldn’t have happened with more appropriate support.

It’s something Erol agreed with. She said her dismissal, her unsuccessful appeal process and her time in the program worsened her anxiety and hindered her self-confidence.

“They definitely need a change in faculty, which would be the best place to start,” Erol said. “It should be part of the curriculum for (PA students) to go see the school psychologists or the counselor that’s on-site.”

Faulkner’s lawsuit is not the first time Quinnipiac has been accused of discrimination against students with disabilities.

Last year, former nurse anesthesia student Derrick Sutton sued Quinnipiac for failing to accommodate his disability, failing him despite his passing grade and ultimately dismissing him from the program in 2019. Sutton, an African American man, also alleged that he was subjected to “a hostile environment due to his race,” according to the initial complaint.

The lawsuit, filed in New York, was struck down in December 2021 due to the court’s lack of jurisdiction over Quinnipiac. As part of Quinnipiac’s motion to dismiss, the university challenged the factual allegations citing a lack of evidence of harassment or discrimination. Sutton filed an appeal with a higher court in January 2022.

In 2012, another former student filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice alleging the university dismissed them after they sought mental health counseling services and refusing to refund their tuition.

Even though Quinnipiac settled the case in December 2014, the DOJ found that the university discriminated against the student in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act by “placing her on mandatory medical leave because of her depression.” 

“Specifically, Quinnipiac University failed to consider modifying its mandatory medical leave policy to permit the complainant to complete her coursework while living off campus by attending classes either online or in person,” the DOJ wrote.

The Chronicle has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the DOJ seeking investigation files for the inquiry into the allegations.

As part of the settlement, Quinnipiac created a “non-discrimination policy,” addressing disabilities including mental ones. Said policy can be found in the university’s course catalog.

Former U.S. Attorney for the District of Connecticut Deirdre Daly, lead attorney for the 2012 complaint, did not comment on the lawsuit filed by Faulkner and whether she thinks the non-discrimination policy by Quinnipiac has been efficient. Daly referred The Chronicle to Michelle McConaghy, USAO-CT’s chief of the Civil Division’s Defensive Unit, whose office declined to comment. 

Sydney Reynolds, special to The Chronicle, contributed to this report.