Student Mental Health Discrimination: A Case against Yale University

[TW: suicide] An advocacy organization and two current students filed a lawsuit against Yale University on November 30 alleging systemic discrimination against students with mental health disabilities.

The lawsuit asserts that Yale’s policies, the risks of being forced to withdraw from the university, and the burdens placed on students when they withdraw and subsequently seek reinstatement, deter students from seeking the mental health treatment they need and from requesting accommodations for their disability.

Elis for Rachael, Inc., a nonprofit organization supporting Yale students in crisis or with mental health disabilities, along with two undergraduates, filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Connecticut. The lawsuit names the President and Fellows (trustees) of Yale University as defendants.

Elis for Rachael was formed by alumni after the March 2021 suicide death of Rachael Shaw-Rosenbaum, 18, of Anchorage, Alaska, who was in her first year at Yale with hopes of becoming a lawyer. She reportedly took her own life after contemplating the consequences of withdrawing from Yale; and worrying she might be kicked out if she sought hospitalization for intensifying suicide ideation.

The plaintiffs are pursuing class action status representing “all Yale students who have, or have a record of, mental health disabilities and who are being harmed, or reasonably fear being harmed, by the illegal policies and practices challenged in this lawsuit.”

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

For the past decade, the lawsuit asserts, members of the Yale community, including the Elis for Rachael organization, have endeavored to persuade Yale to change its policies and practices; but the efforts saw few results.

“Plaintiff Elis for Rachael, though counsel, wrote to Yale on August 8, 2022, in an attempt to resolve these claims amicably and without the need to file this lawsuit,” the complaint says.

The lawsuit seeks no monetary damages, but demands injunctive relief to “to remedy Yale University’s systemic discrimination against students with mental health disabilities.” (Eli is a moniker for a Yale student in reference to a 17th century philanthropist for whom the school is named.)

Yale’s Mental Health Policies

Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that Yale refuses or makes it unreasonably difficult for students experiencing mental health symptoms to obtain accommodations for their coursework or housing.

It further alleges that Yale’s withdrawal and leave of absence policies and practices discriminate against students with mental health disorders.

“For decades,” the lawsuit says, Yale has “treated unequally and failed to accommodate students with mental health disabilities, including by modifying policies, in violation of federal law.”

“Yale’s withdrawal policies and practices push students with mental health disabilities out of Yale, impose punitive consequences on students who have withdrawn, and place unreasonable burdens on students who, after a withdrawal, seek reinstatement.”

The lawsuit argues that the impact of Yale’s discriminatory policies is harshest on students with mental health disabilities from less privileged backgrounds, including students of color, students from poor families or rural areas, and international students.

Yale’s refusal to allow virtual attendance, part-time study, or extensions to the nine maximum semesters allowed to complete a degree are examples of the university’s failure to provide reasonable accommodations for students with mental health disabilities, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit alleges that Yale engages in a practice of pressuring students to take voluntary leaves of absence or face involuntary removal when they experience significant mental illness symptoms. Steps to accommodate a student’s disability so that they may remain both enrolled and safe are not consistently explored, the lawsuit says.

The complaint describes instances where university officials visited students hospitalized for mental health crises to encourage them to withdraw voluntarily because it would “look bad” when they were compelled to do so.

In the case of one of the current student plaintiffs, the lawsuit says, the individual learned after leaving the hospital that she had already been involuntarily withdrawn, had 72 hours to leave campus, and could only return to her dorm room accompanied by a campus police officer. Because she was on an international student visa, the lawsuit says, the student had 15 days to leave the United States. The student experienced trauma as a result of Yale’s handling of her situation, the lawsuit states.

According to the lawsuit, Yale regulations impose restrictions on students who withdraw, voluntarily or otherwise, that are not placed on students who take “leaves of absence” defined as student-initiated withdrawals that takes place no later than 15 days into a semester.

The lawsuit states that a student on withdrawal does not have the option to continue health insurance, is banned from campus, must relinquish their housing, may lose tuition, room, and board fees already paid, and must remain away for one or two semesters even if they can provide documentation from a medical provider recommending that they return earlier.

The lawsuit cites a 2018 report by The Ruderman Family Foundation that sharply criticized the withdrawal policies of all eight Ivy League schools—saying “the most elite institutions in our nation” are “exacerbating the college mental health crisis”—and put Yale at the bottom of the rankings with an F grade.

The lawsuit further alleges that Yale discriminates against students who seek to return to the university after a withdrawal though a daunting reinstatement process including judgement about whether their illness had been successfully treated.

The students must submit a form, a personal statement, and letters of support as if they were applying for Yale admission for the first time, and must persuade the university that they were “constructively occupied” during their withdrawal, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit cited examples of how students seeking reinstatement were required to go through interviews with a Reinstatement Committee and Director of Mental Health & Counseling; and to complete two classroom courses (not online courses) at an accredited four-year university, earning a grade of B or higher, during their withdrawal period from Yale.

Reinstated students must meet higher academic standards than their peers, risking a forced withdrawal if they fail in any courses for the two terms following their reinstatement, the lawsuit claims.

Alleged Violations of Federal Laws

The plaintiffs argue that Yale’s discriminatory policies and practices are in violation of four U.S. statutes; the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Rehabilitation Act, Fair Housing Act, and Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Yale violated Title III of the ADA by denying named plaintiffs and members of the proposed class, on the basis of disability, the opportunity to fully and equally enjoy, participate in, and benefit from Yale’s goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations to which individuals with disabilities are entitled, the lawsuit alleges.

The violation included maintaining and executing policies and practices that utilize criteria and methods of administration that have the effect of discriminating against students with mental health disabilities by tending to screen them out of—and make it more onerous for them to regain access to—campus services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations, on the basis of disability, the lawsuit says.

Furthermore, the lawsuit alleges, Yale failed to make reasonable modifications to ensure that affected students have equal access to the benefits of Yale’s goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations, and to provide such benefits in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.

The lawsuit alleges that as an institution receiving federal financial assistance, Yale violated Rehabilitation Act Section 504 regulations by denying the plaintiffs the benefits of Yale’s programs, services, and activities on the basis of disability; and by maintaining rules that screen out students with disabilities from maintaining their student status and access to campus resources, including housing.

Yale violated Section 1557 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act by denying affected students the benefits of its health programs and activities, including health insurance, on the basis of disability, the lawsuit alleges.

Finally, the lawsuit claims that Yale violated the Fair Housing Act by maintaining and implementing terms and conditions of housing that exclude and otherwise discriminate on the basis of disability; and by refusing to make reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, and services, when such accommodations may be necessary to ensure that students with disabilities have equal opportunities to use and enjoy Yale’s residence halls.

The lawsuit says that Yale violated Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations under the Fair Housing Act by utilizing criteria, standards, and requirements that discriminate on the basis of disability, including requiring students with mental health disorders to submit personal statements and medical documentation in advance of being readmitted to residence halls.

Washington Post Report on Yale

The lawsuit came two weeks after a November 11 article on Yale’s withdrawal policy in The Washington Post 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.” 

“Some described never hearing back from Yale counselors after seeking help,” the Post reported. “Others said they’ve learned to hide mental problems and suicidal thoughts to avoid triggering withdrawal policies that they believe are designed to protect Yale from lawsuits and damage to its reputation.”

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.”

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 medical withdrawals are reinstated, that Yale continues to expand its mental health services amid a “surge in demand,” and that the Post article perpetuated a damaging stigma around 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.”

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.

New Policy Changes at Yale

In a January 18 statement to students, Dean of Yale College Pericles Lewis announced “policy changes and clarifications designed to make it easier to take time off if you ever need to and easier to return.” The changes are posted on the “Time Away and Return” page of the Yale website.

Without referencing the lawsuit or its plaintiffs, the statement said that the Dean’s Office began a review of withdrawal policies in early 2022 “listening to current and former students, and collaborating with colleagues across the university.”

The statement listed the following changes:

  • Time away from Yale for medical reasons will now be classified as a “medical leave of absence” rather than as a withdrawal.
  • Students can petition to be able to drop to as low as two courses while remaining in good academic standing, rather than taking a medical leave, if urgent medical needs arise during the term that require significant time for treatment.
  • Students going on medical leave with Yale Health Hospitalization/Specialty Care Coverage can transition to Yale Health Undergraduate Affiliate Coverage for one year. Financial support for the continuing insurance premiums will be available for students receiving the highest levels of financial aid.
  • Students going on medical leaves will receive individualized recommendations for how long they might expect to remain away due to their medical needs; with no minimum or maximum limits on the number of terms for medical leaves.
  • Students on medical leaves can continue working as student employees, to meet with advisers at the Office of Career Strategy, and to use library resources.
  • Students on medical leaves can have access to campus “as visitors and guests,” and may participate “in limited ways” in student organizations.
  • Students returning from medical leaves no longer need to go through an interview with the Reinstatement Committee chair, submit letters of reference, or meet a requirement of remaining “constructively occupied” during their time away.
  • Students returning from medical leaves are no longer required to pass every course in the first two terms after they return.

In a statement reported by The Washington Post on January 19, Elis for Rachael, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said it was in settlement negotiations with Yale pushing for more to be done. “We thank Yale for this first step,” the statement said. “But if Yale were to receive a grade for its work on mental health, it would be an incomplete at best.”

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.