Yale’s Mental Health Policies Under Fire

[TW: suicide] The Washington Post on November 11 published an investigative report detailing how Yale University’s mental health services, policies, and practices fail to adequately support students, and even intimidate some from seeking help they need for fear of being forced to withdraw from the school.

Yale University campus, New Haven, Connecticut

The headline on the Post article was “‘What if Yale finds out?’: Suicidal students are pressured to withdraw from Yale, then have to apply to get back into the university.”

The article cited interviews with more than 25 students who “described a university flush with money, yet beset by inadequate services and policies that often fail students in crisis.”  Yale’s endowment, the Post said, is worth $41.4 billion.

The article said some students told of never hearing back from Yale mental health counselors after seeking help. Others said that the short counseling appointments they received were not helpful and even “made things worse” by not providing enough space to work through problems.

Some students reported that they hide mental problems and suicidal thoughts to avoid triggering withdrawal policies “they believe are designed to protect Yale from lawsuits and damage to its reputation.”

The Post report described how students pressured or forced on medical withdrawals were barred from classes, gyms, libraries, extracurricular activities, and even setting foot on campus; for some, that meant losing routines, research, and connections with friends and mentors, things that provided purpose, identity, and support when students needed it most. Additional student worries included losing medical insurance and the potential impact a mental health withdrawal could have on their future applications for post-graduate study.

The article described a variety of daunting requirements that students on a mental health withdrawals must fulfill to be reinstated at Yale: submitting an essay, providing letters of recommendation, interviewing with Yale officials, taking two courses at another university during their withdrawal; proving that they had been “constructively occupied,” and demonstrating that they had “addressed their problems.”

The Post reported how some students forced to withdraw from a prestigious university they were so proud to attend experienced feelings of anger, failure, frustration, being broken and dehumanized. “They make you feel like you’re the best of the best, like this bright and shiny thing,” one student told the Post. “But as soon as something’s wrong, they want nothing to do with you.”

The article quoted an alum on how her withdrawal two decades ago still haunts her. “It’s the betrayal you feel, the violation,” she said. “Realizing how unimportant you are to this institution that you had such high hopes for. The trauma of how they treated me has outlasted many other issues I had.”

Students interviewed by the Post described being pressured to withdraw from Yale immediately after being hospitalized for a mental health crisis. In one case, a student was transported to a hospital after university officials learned that she was cutting, which the Mayo Clinic terms “non-suicidal self-injury… to cope with emotional pain, sadness, anger and stress.” At the hospital, they forced her to withdraw and return home. Seven months later, she attempted suicide while applying for reinstatement to Yale. She wound up applying to and attending Northwestern University.

Another in an occasional series of articles about student mental health. For more information, go to The Sophie Fund’s Student Mental Health Page

The Post related the story of Rachael Shaw-Rosenbaum, who died by suicide during her first year at Yale in March 2021. According to the article, her family said that she took her own life after contemplating the consequences of withdrawing from the school. The Post said that two days before her act she had written on Reddit of her worry of being forced to withdraw from Yale if she sought treatment for suicidal thoughts she was experiencing.

The Post cited rights advocates who argue that “many schools have hustled those students off campus instead of treating them as people with disabilities who are entitled to special accommodations to remain.” The article said critics claim that Yale has been slower than some elite universities to accommodate students who don’t want to leave.

The Post article referenced a 2018 study by The Ruderman Family Foundation that gave Yale an F grade for its withdrawal policies. The Post also noted that Yale is one of only two Ivy League schools that have not joined a four-year program at The Jed Foundation to improve campus mental health policies.

Yale officials responded harshly to the Post article, saying that student well-being is their primary focus, that virtually all students who request returns to campus after a medical withdrawal are readmitted, that Yale continues to expand its mental health services, and that the Post article perpetuates a stigma about taking mental health withdrawals.

“Addressing students’ mental health is a complex and nuanced endeavor, which this article ignored,” Paul Hoffman, director of Mental Health & Counseling for Yale Health, and Pericles Lewis, dean of Yale College, wrote in a letter to the newspaper published November 15. “The article could put more students at risk in its misguided focus on continuous enrollment rather than considering the value of taking time necessary for mental health care.”

On November 16, Yale President Peter Salovey said in a statement to Yale alumni and friends that the Post article “fails to acknowledge the support, processes, and policies in place or the positive outcomes associated with our work.”

He said that Yale students utilized approximately 55,000 mental health visits in 2022, and that Yale’s counseling center provided treatment to more than 5,000 students. He noted the “surge” in demand for mental health services across the nation, and that Yale responded by reviewing its policies, loosening its reinstatement policy, and adding new counseling services.

“I found the Washington Post article deeply disturbing for the misinformation it contains about Yale and for the harm it can do to students by perpetuating the damaging narrative that it is more important to stay in college than to take time to heal,” Salovey wrote. He did not provide any examples to support his allegation that the Post article contained falsehoods or inaccuracies.

“As a clinical psychologist and faculty member who has worked alongside mental health and student affairs colleagues at Yale for four decades, I am disappointed that the Post article misrepresents our efforts and unwavering commitment to supporting our students, whose well-being and success are our primary focus.”

While touting Yale’s concern for students and policies and services to support them, neither of the university’s statements acknowledged or responded to the criticism, frustration, anxiety, and anger broadly voiced by students in the Post story about policies that fail to support students and inadequate mental health services. The letter to the Post noted that confidentiality prevents Yale from commenting on specific student cases.

If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 9-8-8, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.