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Yale changes mental health policies for students in crisis

The university had been under fire for pressuring suicidal students to withdraw

A woman walks by a Yale sign on the campus in New Haven, Conn. (Ted Shaffrey/AP)

Yale University unveiled sweeping changes Wednesday that will allow students suffering from mental health problems to take time off without losing health insurance or facing a daunting application process for reinstatement — policies that have been under increasing fire from students and alumni.

Under the new policy, students in mental crisis will be able to take leaves of absences instead of being pushed to withdraw, and they can return to classes when they feel ready, Dean of Yale College Pericles Lewis told students in an email.

The policy changes come two months after a Washington Post story detailed students being pressured by Yale administrators to withdraw once the university learned about their mental health problems and then being forced to reapply to get back in.

'What if Yale finds out?'

The story drew on the accounts of more than 25 current and former students, who described a university flush with a $41.4 billion endowment yet beset by inadequate services and punitive policies for those in mental crisis. Many students said they avoided seeking counseling and hid suicidal thoughts for fear of being exiled.

After the story was published, alumni and faculty expressed alarm to Yale administrators. Then at the end of November, current and former students filed a lawsuit accusing the school of systematically discriminating against students with mental illness.

Yale and other universities are facing an explosion of students struggling with mental health issues. For years, many schools have hustled those students off campus instead of treating them as people with disabilities who are entitled to special accommodations to remain, mental health advocates say.

Stanford, Brown and other universities have changed their policies in response to lawsuits, federal investigation and accusations of discrimination. More schools are re-examining their policies as a result.

At Yale, long-standing demands from students for change intensified in 2021 after a freshman named Rachael Shaw-Rosenbaum killed herself on campus. She’d already been hospitalized once and feared being kicked out of Yale if it happened again.

In a phone interview, Lewis said Yale wants “to make clear to students their first priority in dealing with mental health problems should be mental health. And obviously we want people to be able to continue their education.”

The goal of the new policies, he said, was to “make it seamless for people to be able to return,” and to avoid treating students taking time off for mental health reasons in the same way as students with disciplinary issues.

In his email to students, Lewis wrote that the changes were made after “listening to current and former students, and collaborating with colleagues across the university” and he thanked “the many students, past and present, who have shared their experiences.”

He addressed all students facing crises, saying, “I hope these revised policies ease any concerns about your student status, allowing you (and the people supporting you) to focus on what is important.”

In the past, many students who were suicidal or suffered from mental health problems said they were pushed by Yale administrators to withdraw, sometimes while still in the hospital. Those who did so had to leave campus in 72 hours or less and were forbidden from setting foot on campus without the permission of a dean.

In interviews with The Post, several students — who relied on Yale’s health insurance — described losing access to therapy and health care at the moment they needed it most.

The policy changes announced Wednesday reversed many of those practices.

By allowing students in mental crisis to take a leave of absence rather than withdraw, they will continue to have access to health insurance through Yale, university officials said. They can continue to work as a student employee, meet with career advisers, have access to campus and use library resources.

Finding a way to allow students to retain health insurance required overcoming significant logistical and financial hurdles, Lewis said, since New Haven and Connecticut are where most health providers in Yale’s system are located. But under the new policies, students on leave can switch to “affiliate coverage,” which would cover out-of-network care in other states.

In recent weeks, students and mental advocates questioned why Yale would not allow students struggling with mental health issues to take fewer classes. The new policies will now allow students to drop their course load to as low as two classes under special circumstances. But students can do so only if they require significant time for treatment and if their petition is approved.

In the past, withdrawn students had to submit an application for reinstatement, which included letters of recommendation, and proof they had remained “constructively occupied” during their time away. Under new policies, students returning from a medical leave of absence will submit a “simplified reinstatement request” that includes a letter from their clinician and a personal statement explaining why they left, the treatment they received and why they feel ready to return.

In their updated online policies, the university made clear it still retained the right to impose an involuntary medical leave on students in cases of “a significant risk to the student’s health or safety, or to the health or safety of others.”

The changes were announced one day before Yale officials are scheduled to meet for settlement talks with the group of current and former students who filed a proposed class-action lawsuit against the university, demanding policy changes. The two sides met once already on Jan. 9.

In a statement, one of the plaintiffs — a nonprofit group called Elis for Rachael, led by former Yale students — said they are still pushing for more to be done: “We remain in negotiations. We thank Yale for this first step. But if Yale were to receive a grade for its work on mental health, it would be an incomplete at best.”

But after decades of mental health advocacy with little change at the university, some students said they were surprised at the changes Yale has made already.

“I really didn’t think it would happen during my time here,” said Akweley Mazarae Lartey, a senior at Yale who has advocated for mental rights throughout his time at the school. “I started thinking of all the situations that I and people I care for have ended up in and how much we could have used these policies sooner.”

Lartey — a leader in a disability rights student group called DEFY — recalled feeling let down by Yale repeatedly whenever he struggled with his mental health.

“I lost my health care when I decided to take a leave of absence. I lost access to medication and therapy,” he said. “It made returning to campus even more difficult, as I was not able to use my time off to work on my mental health and came back unsupported. What I hope happens beyond a shift in policy is a shift in culture and attitude, so that students who need help aren’t punished for it but supported instead.”

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