On a Mental Health Mission to Support Others

Although public speaking is not her favorite thing, Sandra Sorensen, the new executive director of the Finger Lakes chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), took the microphone like a seasoned emcee, welcomed the organization’s supporters, and led them in a countdown for her first fundraising walk.

Sandra Sorensen

“Four! Three! Two! One! Yay! Let’s go, everybody!” she shouted. With that, a hundred or so folks filed between two tall pillars of blue and green balloons and began a trek under a clear-blue sky along Cayuga Inlet in Ithaca’s Cass Park.

The results from Sorensen’s first NAMIWalks event on May 6 were gratifying: 113 individuals and 16 teams collected more than $24,000, three times the organization’s goal of $8,000. Sorensen herself was the top fundraiser, bringing in $3,120 in donations. (Buoyant Punk was the leading fundraising team, with $5,100.)

To make a late DONATION, go to the NAMIWalks webpage here.

NAMIWalks in Cass Park

For all her enthusiasm, Sorensen’s initial connection with NAMI Finger Lakes, a decade ago, was not under the best of circumstances.

Her husband Michael was struggling with mental illness, but because of stigma he kept that to himself. A friend told Sorensen about NAMI’s Family to Family Program, a group where people can get support and learn how to best aid loved ones. Once a week, she would get the kids to bed, then sneak out to join the group’s meetings.

“It was something I had to do, but it had to be done in secret,” Sorensen recalled. “My husband kept this part of himself private. I felt a huge weight lifted from my shoulders. I was surprised to learn that what I really needed was how to better take care of me so I could support him.”

“I felt supported and understood by all the others in the class going through similar things,” she added. “I no longer felt alone. I was, for the first time, able to share my story in a confidential, safe space. Nobody made any judgement on my husband, something he was so fearful about. There was no stigma, and no judgement. Only empathy and love.”

Walking for Mental Health

Michael’s story, like too many others, Sorensen shared, ended in tragedy. He died by suicide in 2021. As she and her five children grieved the loss and adapted to their new life, Sorensen decided she could use her experiences to help others, just as NAMI support group members had done for her. When the position at NAMI-FL opened up last year, she jumped at the opportunity.

NAMI is a national grassroots organization founded in 1979 and dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. NAMI-FL provides free support, education, and advocacy for people closest to those living with mental health conditions.

At NAMI-FL, Sorensen explained, it’s all about peer support. A NAMI-FL help line is staffed by volunteers with lived experience, helping callers feel heard and supported. The same goes for the Family to Family Program, which NAMI-FL offers as an eight-week class. Sorensen oversees NAMI-FL’s programs, with the goal of helping people facing similar situations to her own not feel alone. More projects are in the works.

Sorensen’s passion for mental health advocacy and nonprofit management is shaping a career journey she never expected. She graduated from the University of Massachusetts Lowell in 1995 with a degree in Polymer/Plastics Engineering, and worked in the field for six years before leaving to homeschool her children. Eventually, she took a bookkeeping job with a pregnancy crisis nonprofit, using skills she’d picked up from her husband’s construction business.

After volunteering to help with bookkeeping at Second Wind Cottages, she ended up staying on as the nonprofit’s first executive director.” “I was there through the pandemic, and it was disheartening to see how quickly the need for mental health care was escalating in the community and throughout the world,” Sorensen said.

Sorensen’s main goal as NAMI-FL executive director is to promote the organization’s services. She describes the challenge of reaching people who desperately need connections yet are unaware of NAMI-FL’s programs. “It’s a hard pill for me to swallow,” she said. “This supportive organization exists without many people knowing about it, but they should. No one deserves to feel lost in crisis.”

Support, Education, Advocacy

NAMI-FL board member Kathy Taylor, who likewise first became connected to NAMI when a family member was struggling, is thrilled to have Sorensen on board.

“Her passion for the mission of NAMI is clear,” Taylor said. “She has a true understanding of the burdens of mental illness, and she’s using her knowledge to destigmatize and advocate for all who struggle.”

Taylor supports Sorensen’s goal of raising NAMI-FL’s profile in the community. “We need to continue making connections with outside organizations, supporting each other the best we can, in order to help destigmatize mental illness all over. The more people that know about us and what we stand for, the more support we can offer.”

NAMI Finger Lakes volunteers Jason Hungerford and Melissa Lorah

Sorensen no longer tiptoes when leaving home for NAMI meetings. As the local chapter’s executive director, she is determined to spread the word about the organization’s support services to everyone within earshot and beyond. Judging from her NAMIWalks success, people are listening.

NAMI Finger Lakes help line can be reached at (607) 273-2462 or by email at namiflsupport@namifingerlakes.org.

—Lyndsey Honor

Lyndsey Honor, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a senior at Ithaca College, majoring in Writing and minoring in Honors, French, and Theatre. She is the managing editor of the school’s Stillwater Magazine and has written for the Ithaca Times.

Students Walk at Cornell University to Fight Suicide

Nearly 200 people traveled a collective total of 337 miles in the rain and raised $11,692.32 on April 30 in the first-ever Out of the Darkness walk for suicide prevention to take place on the Cornell University campus.

Cornell Swimming & Diving Team

Throngs with ponchos, umbrellas, yellow galoshes, or just getting soaked in an April shower, including Cornell fraternity brothers, the Swimming & Diving, Tennis, and Volleyball teams, among others in the Cornell community, trekked the two-mile route from Corson-Mudd Hall, to the College of Veterinary Medicine, Feeney Way, and back again.

“By showing up today, you are sending the message that mental health is as real as physical health,” said chief organizer Cheyanne Scholl during an opening ceremony inside the Corson-Mudd atrium.

“You are sending the message that reaching out for help is the strong thing to do. You are showing others that the issue of suicide cannot and will not be kept in the darkness. And thanks to you, we remain hopeful.”

More than 500 Out of the Darkness walks are held across the country each year by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) to raise awareness, collect research funds, and send a message that “suicide is preventable and no one is alone.” In 2022, Overnight, Community, and Campus walks raised more than $21 million.

Among the participants in the Cornell walk were 14 campus fundraising teams, with Team Malibu raising the most funds, $1,450. Other top teams included SCL-TCOB, Cornell Vet, Alpha Gamma Rho, and The Statler Hotel. Skye Krehbiel was the top individual fundraiser with $1,210, and Michelle Moyal was second with $698.02.

Local businesses also supported the walk with donations, including Wegmans Panera Bread, Mirabito, Uncle Marty’s Shipping Office, Big Red Barbershop, and Cornell University.

Stacy Ayres and Crystal Howser of AFSP, and Co-Chair Cheyanne Scholl

In her remarks, Scholl explained that she has been involved with AFSP since 2017, when she participated in a walk at Iowa State University to honor a very close high school friend, Jack, a student there who had recently died by suicide. She was a first-year student at the time, and she recalled how “my life flipped on me” as she grieved Jack’s death.

“As a new college student experiencing such a tremendous loss, I was very lost and did not know where to turn,” she said. “The support and help I received from everyone around me was incredibly helpful. I learned that it is okay to reach out when you need help, you are not alone.”

Want to get involved? AFSP Greater Central New York will host a Greater Ithaca Walk on September 9, 2023. Click here to register or donate. To volunteer with AFSP, click here.

When Scholl moved to Ithaca from Iowa last summer to start a new job at Cornell, she spent part of the 16-hour car ride researching the local AFSP chapter determined to explore holding a Cornell walk. Backed by AFSP Greater Central New York, Scholl and a team of Cornell students and staff members including Scholl’s co-chair Daniel Richter spent months organizing the event on the sprawling campus.

Alpha Gamma Rho

Also speaking at the event was Kathleen Stathopoulos, whose son Yiannis ’24, a third-year Doctor of Veterinary Medicine student in the College of Veterinary Medicine, died by suicide last summer. He was president of the Student American Veterinary Medical Association, and worked at an animal hospital. Stathopoulos shared that Yiannis was a mental health advocate who sought to reduce the high suicide rate among vet school students.

Stathopoulos said her son was known for his self-assurance. The 24-year-old was an avid body builder who loved to ski, golf, fly his drone, ride his motorcycle, and attend Mets games. “Yianni, above everything, loved his family,” she said. In the weeks before he died, he had rescued two kittens and a rabbit and nurtured them back to health. Yiannis’s death, she said, seemed to come out of the blue.

“Yianni was active, he was engaged, he was involved,” Stathopoulos recalled. “He was a person who was alive. He smiled an infectious smile. I had no idea that Yianni had any kind of suicidal thoughts. His family had no idea, the closest of his friends, his teachers and administrators, they had no idea. Everybody was shocked.”

She added: “When they came to Yianni’s memorial in Brooklyn, people said, ‘Yianni? Not Yianni. Yianni had it all. He was living the dream. How did this happen?’ But it did happen.”

Stathopoulos said that while Yiannis projected strength, he appears to have been very good at hiding behind that image. “How could a person who’s looked at like a Greek god, so confident, now say to people, ‘I’m having a problem. I feel like I might do something to myself.’ That would be shattering the image. Yianni had that image and protected it. If Yianni could have just realized it’s okay not to be okay. Mental illness is just like any other illness. It’s not a character flaw.”

Yiannis’s mother urged the students participating in the walk to seek mental health support if they are struggling. “If there’s anyone out there thinking that something’s wrong, if that bully in the brain is telling you you’re not good, fight it, tell somebody, tell a professional, tell a friend, tell a loved one. Talk to somebody. It will help.”

Another speaker was Scott MacLeod, whose daughter Sophie ’14, a senior in the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, died by suicide in 2016 at age 23 while on a health leave of absence from Cornell. MacLeod described how his family and friends established The Sophie Fund in Ithaca to advocate for improved mental health support for young people, including students at Cornell and other local campuses.

Why We Walk

Some of the comments written on the Cornell walk’s “Why We Walk” banner:

“All our loved ones we have lost, and to those who keep fighting each day. You matter and are not alone. My Dad, my hero.”

“For Sam, my best friend.”

“For the Czymmek family and in the loving memory of Will. We are still here for you.”

“For Chris. You are loved!”

“For Greg and his family, and everyone who struggles.”

“For all the student athletes and those struggling.”

“For my mom’s struggle.”

“For my brother Kyle, and all those who suffer.”

“For my trans siblings, I love you.”

“For Dong Hao.”

“Never stop fighting!”

Laurie Conlon, Jessica Withers, and Co-Chair Daniel Richter

Cornell Women’s Volleyball Team

Carolina Baquerizo, Alayzha Turner-Rodgers, and Hannah Van Bergen of the College of Veterinary Medicine

Hope Walks Here

Honor Beads

Have a Real Conversation

Hope Walks Here

Cornell walkers raised $11,692.32 for AFSP educational programming and research

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.

Our Teen Girls are Seriously Struggling with Mental Health

[TW: suicide, sexual assault] A new report is raising a loud alarm about the mental health of American teenagers, especially girls.

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey 2011-2021, issued on February 13 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, revealed disturbingly elevated numbers and trends in mental health, sexual assault, and suicidal behaviors for high school girls.

National PTA President Anna King: “Our children need us, right now.”

Another troubling finding was the high percentage of depression and suicidal behaviors among teens identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, questioning, or another non-heterosexual identity.

“America’s teen girls are engulfed in a growing wave of sadness, violence, and trauma,” said CDC Chief Medical Officer Deborah Houry, speaking at the release of the nationwide student survey results, which drew from 17,232 students in 152 schools across the country.

“Over the past decade, teens, especially girls, have experienced dramatic increases and experiences of violence and poor mental health and suicide risk,” she said. “These data are hard to hear, and should result in action. As a parent to a teenage girl, I am heartbroken.”

One of most distressing results was that 57 percent of female teens reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in the previous 12 months. That was a significant increase since 2011, when 36 percent of girls reported those feelings. It also represented a notable spike from the 2019 YRBS survey, just before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted school life, when the figure was 46.6 percent.

In 2021, 29 percent of male teens reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, up from 21 percent in 2011. By race and ethnicity, 46 percent of Hispanic youth, 41 percent of white youth, 40 percent of American Indian youth, 39 percent of Black youth, and 35 percent of Asian youth signaled persistent depression or sadness.

Overall, 42 percent of high schoolers reported those sadness and hopelessness feelings in 2021. The report considered a teen’s feelings to be persistent if they “felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row that they stopped doing their usual activities.”

Looking for help? DOWNLOAD the 2023 Mental Health Support and Crisis Services guide for Tompkins County

The CDC report also found a rise in sexual assault against teen girls. After holding steady at 10-11 percent for a decade, 14 percent of female high school students in 2021 reported being forced to have sexual intercourse. Girls were more than three times as likely as boys to experience forced sexual intercourse. By race and ethnicity, 9 percent of all Hispanic youth, 8 percent of all white youth, 7 percent of all Black youth, and 4 percent of all Asian youth said they were forced to have intercourse.

A total of 18 percent of all teenage girls reported experiencing some kind of sexual violence, including forced kissing and touching as well as intercourse.

“This is truly alarming,” said Kathleen Ethier, director of CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health. “For every 10 teenage girls you know, at least one of them, and probably more, has been raped. This tragedy cannot continue.”

The YRBS data on teen suicide was also very concerning. According to the survey, 22 percent of teens “seriously considered attempting suicide,” 18 percent had made a suicide plan, and 10 percent had attempted suicide.

Girls were two times more likely than male teenagers to engage in suicidal behaviors. According to the report, 30 percent of female teens said they seriously considered suicide, 24 percent had made a plan, and 13 percent had attempted to take their own lives; for males, the figures were 14 percent, 12 percent, and 7 percent, respectively.

The percentage of girls who seriously considered attempting suicide significantly increased from 19 percent in 2011 to 30 percent in 2021; for boys, the figure remained steady, going from 13 percent to 14 percent.

Students who identified as LGBQ+, or had same-sex partners, experienced the highest rates of sadness and hopelessness. By far, they also had the highest percentages of suicidal behaviors.

According to the survey, 69 percent of LGBQ+ students, and 78 percent of teens with same-sex partners, reported persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness.

In the same pattern, LGBQ+ teens were roughly three times more likely than their heterosexual peers to engage in suicidal behaviors. The report said that 45 percent had seriously considered suicide, 37 percent had devised a plan, and 22 percent had made an attempt.

The rates were even higher for teens with same-sex partners: 58 percent, 50 percent, and 33 percent, respectively. Seven percent of LGBQ+ teens and 14 percent of teens with same-sex partners reported having been injured in a suicide attempt, compared to 1 percent of heterosexual youth.

By race and ethnicity, 27 percent of American Indian youth, 23 percent of whites, 22 percent of Black youth, 22 percent of Hispanic youth, and 18 percent of Asian youth said they had considered suicide; 22 percent of American Indian youth, 19 percent of Hispanic youth, 17 percent of white youth, 18 percent of Black youth, and 17 percent of Asian youth had made a plan; and 16 percent of American Indian youth, 11 percent of Hispanic youth, 14 percent of Black youth, 9 percent of white youth, and 6 percent of Asian youth had attempted suicide. Overall, 3 percent of high school students reported being injured in a suicide attempt.

According to CDC, poor mental health can result in serious negative outcomes for the health and development of adolescents, which can last into adulthood. Young people who feel hopeless about their future are more likely to engage in behaviors that put them at risk for HIV, STDs, and unintended pregnancy, it says. Suicide risk not only places the life of the adolescent at risk, but is also a marker for experience with trauma and other mental health issues, CDC notes.

Anna King, president of the National Parent Teacher Association, reacted to the YRBS report during a CDC media briefing.

“This YRBS data is extremely heartbreaking to see,” she said. “This is especially heartbreaking to see the data for female students and LGBQ+ students. We’ve been saying our nation is facing a huge mental health crisis, and this data makes it even more devastating.”

King called on schools, families, and community organizations to address the youth mental health crisis together as a matter of urgency.

“It’s critical that everyone come together, school staff and community organizations, collaborate and work together to help our families and our children with comprehensive support,” she said. “Our children need us, right now.”

Schools should support a school climate where all students feel welcome, supported, and set up for success, she said. “We suggest that our schools start by educating their staff and their families on what mental health is, what supports are available, and how they can access their services. This includes teaching about social and emotional learning, connecting students with counseling, and providing families with tools they need to have mental health and great conversations at home.”

King spoke about losing her own 15-year-old niece, Lana, to suicide five years ago, and urged parents to develop a strong understanding of their children’s wellbeing.

“She was a happy child,” King recalled. “She was very engaging. She ran track and basketball. She was a dancer, and she was a cheerleader. We never knew what signs were, or what to look for. I wish my family had these resources, and knew what to look for earlier.”

“I’m urging our families to come together, look for signs, look for ways that you can have these conversations with your children. It’s critical to talk with our children about what they’re feeling and their concerns, things happen at school with their friends, and how current events are always impacting them, and to share their own feelings and challenges are extremely important, as well as your own.”

WATCH: CDC media briefing on Youth Risk Behavior Survey 2011-2021

Schools are on the front lines of the youth mental health crisis, and must be equipped with proven tools to help students thrive, CDC’s Ethier agreed.

She called for teachers to be trained to help manage the mental health problems they see in their classrooms, mentors to help foster positive connections, and schools to ensure that they are safe places for vulnerable youth.

 She added that schools should connect youth to needed services, and provide quality health education that teaches skills like understanding sexual consent, managing emotions, and communication.

Ethier said such critical lifelines for students and found in CDC’s What Works in Schools program. “Research has shown that schools that implement the program see significant benefits for their students,” she said.

Ethier said that the 2011-2022 YRBS report contains the first national youth risk behavior data since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, but noted that “data have shown that many measures were moving in the wrong direction before the pandemic.”

Note about transgender data: The CDC report said that because the survey did did not include a question on gender identity, the report did not highlight data specifically on students who identify as transgender. That’s why the report references “LGBQ+” omitting the letter T that is commonly used in the acronym LGBTQ+, the report explained. “However, strategies to improve adolescent health should be inclusive of all students who identify as LGBTQ+, so the full acronym is used when highlighting actions,” the report said. It added that future YRBS surveys will include a question on gender identity.

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

Preventing Suicide through Training

The Sophie Fund is providing scholarships for healthcare professionals in Tompkins County to attend a two-day online training in youth suicide prevention featuring some of the nation’s leading experts.

The program, “Suicide Safer Care in Clinical Practice: A training designed to strengthen clinical skills to provide caring and effective services to youth at risk for suicide and their families,” takes place March 21-22.

The training, which covers identifying at-risk individuals in everyday medical appointments, best practice treatments, engaging family in suicide care, how social media impacts suicidal behaviors, and other topics, is sponsored by The Wellness Institute and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (See full program, below.)

Free registration for physicians, primary care clinicians, health and mental health clinicians, and social workers serving Tompkins County is supported by a grant from The Sophie Fund. CE credits are available for $25 at cost to registrant.

To request a registration link for free registration, healthcare professionals can email The Sophie Fund at thesophiefund2016@gmail.com providing their name, degree level, place of employment (or name and address of practice, if self-employed), and email address.

Scott MacLeod, co-founder of The Sophie Fund, said the training is part of his organization’s initiative to advance the Zero Suicide Model with healthcare providers in Tompkins County.

Zero Suicide is an emerging standard designed to save lives by closing gaps in the suicide care offered by healthcare providers. The model provides a practical framework for system-wide quality improvement in areas including training staff in current best practices, identifying at-risk individuals through comprehensive screening and assessment, engaging at-risk patients with effective care management, evidence-based treatments, and safe care transition.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Americans aged 10-34. Over the past five years, Tompkins County has averaged 12 suicide deaths per year. Another 1,600 parents, children, siblings, friends, and spouses may be impacted by the resulting psychological, spiritual, and/or financial loss.

An estimated 300 people in Tompkins County may attempt suicide every year. While rates for other causes of death have remained steady or declined, the U.S. suicide rate increased 35.2% from 1999 to 2018.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teen girls are confronting the highest levels of sexual violence, sadness, and hopelessness ever reported to the CDC. Three in five girls felt persistently sad and hopeless, a marker for depressive symptoms, in 2021, up nearly 60 percent from 2011, the CDC announced on February 13.

Suicide Safer Care in Clinical Practice

A training designed to strengthen clinical skills to

provide caring and effective services to youth at risk for suicide and their families

March 21, 2023, 1-4:30 p.m.

A Framework for Understanding Suicide

Jill Harkavy-Friedman, PhD

Columbia University; American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP)

Introduction to Dialectical Behavioral Therapy for Adolescents (DBT-A)

Alec Miller, PsyD

Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Co-Author, Dialectical Behavior Therapy with Suicidal Adolescents

Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C-SSRS)

Kelly Posner Gerstenhaber, PhD

The Columbia Lighthouse Project, Columbia University

Safety Planning Intervention (SPI)

Gregory K. Brown, PhD

Penn Center for the Prevention of Suicide, University of Pennsylvania; Co-Developer, CT-SP, and Suicide Safety Plan

Hope Kit and Caring Contacts

Kelly Green, PhD

Center for the Prevention of Suicide, University of Pennsylvania

Support Systems for High-Risk Individuals

Cheryl King, PhD

Youth Depression and Suicide Prevention Program, University of Michigan

Cultural Considerations in Suicide Prevention

Tami D. Benton, MD

Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

March 22, 2023, 1-4:30 p.m.

988 and Innovations in Crisis Care

Richard T. McKeon, PhD, MPH

Chief, Suicide Prevention Branch, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

David Covington, LPC, MBA

RI International Behavioral Health Link Zero Suicide; Crisis Now

Engaging Family in Suicide Care: Attachment-Based Family Therapy

Guy Diamond, PhD

Drexel University; Developer, Attachment-Based Family Therapy (ABFT)

Effects of Social Media on Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors

Jacqueline Nesi, PhD

Brown University; NIMH and AFSP-funded Researcher

Jonathan B. Singer, PhD, LCSW

Loyola University Chicago; Author, Suicide in Schools

Suicide Prevention in Clinical Practice: Practical Considerations

Jill Harkavy-Friedman, PhD

Columbia University; American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP)

David Jobes, PhD

Catholic University of America; Creator and Developer, Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS)

Learning Objectives

  • Describe a framework for understanding suicide.
  • Review how to ask about risk factors and identify warning signs of suicide.
  • Explain the fundamentals of the Biosocial Theory of Emotion Dysregulation.
  • Review the evidence base for DBT with teens and five problem areas and skills modules.
  • Describe the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C-SSRS).
  • Discuss the benefits of using the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C-SSRS) to assess suicide risk.
  • Describe a methodology of helping at-risk individuals create their personalized safety plan for implementation during times of crisis.
  • Describe how to utilize the Hope Kit intervention and explain the evidence and process of implementing “Caring Contacts” for suicide prevention.
  • Describe ways school or social connectedness has been linked to adolescent well-being and suicide risk.
  • Describe the core components of the Youth-Nominated Support Team intervention (YST).
  • Discuss cultural disparities and considerations in caring for individuals with elevated suicide risk.
  • Describe how 988 and crisis centers can support practitioners’ work and their patients.
  • Explain the theoretical foundation of Attachment-Based Family Therapy (ABFT) and discuss the purpose of the five ABFT treatment tasks.
  • Explain the benefits and risks of social media in relation to suicidal thoughts and behavior among adolescents.
  • Identify strategies to help families manage digital media use in the context of psychiatric treatment.
  • Describe steps to take to prepare one’s practice for suicide prevention.
  • Describe how to follow up when a person states they are thinking about suicide.
  • Discuss balancing privacy with lifesaving care.

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.

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.