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Report: Yale fails to meet grade in mental health leave policies


  • The Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University in New Haven. Photo: Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media / New Haven Register

    The Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University in New Haven.

    The Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University in New Haven.


    Photo: Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media

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The Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University in New Haven.

The Sterling Memorial Library at Yale University in New Haven.



Photo: Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media


NEW HAVEN — Yale University’s leave of absence policies for students suffering from mental health issues received an F in a new report by the Ruderman Family Foundation, but the rest of the Ivy League fared little better.

The University of Pennsylvania led the eight elite universities with a D-plus. Author Miriam Heyman said there is “a crisis confronting the entire sector of higher education” when it comes to policies for students who need to take time off because they’re suffering from mental illness


Heyman is senior program officer at the foundation, which is a Jewish-centered organization focused on improving life for people with disabilities.

The Ivies were chosen because, ranking among the most elite universities in the country, they “should therefore lead the field in practices that promote inclusion and support for students with mental health disabilities,” according to the report.


In fact, however, “Currently, the leave of absence policies do not reflect institutional commitment to supporting students with mental health disabilities,” the report states.

This is a major problem, Heyman said, because “the rates of mental illness on college campuses are astronomically high.” Forty percent of undergraduates were so depressed in the past year “that it was difficult for them to function” and more than 10 percent have seriously considered suicide, according to the American College Health Association.

However, the report states that smaller colleges have just one mental health clinician for every 1,000 to 2,000 students and larger schools have only one for every 2,000 to 3,500 students.

At the same time, accommodations for mental health disabilities are limited or are not offered in an open, transparent way, the report states.

Heyman’s paper focuses on policies governing leaves of absence because they are “potentially useful to the student; students can use the time away from academic demands to focus on well being and recovery. However, schools may also use the leave of absence as a tool for discrimination, pushing students out of school who are entitled by law to receive accommodations and supports which would enable them to stay” on campus, according to the report.


Colleges and universities may put a student on a leave of absence because they “lack the infrastructure and they are afraid of suicide on campus and the liability that comes with that,” Heyman said. “Very often they are pushing students to take a leave to get them off campus.”

Involuntary leaves have become the subject of a lawsuit at Stamford University, with several students accusing the school of “punitive, illegal, and discriminatory treatment of students with mental health disabilities.”

Heyman said universities’ policies generally “are a reflection of the school’s commitment or lack thereof of supporting students.”

“Some kids or students absolutely need a leave of absence … and for many students a leave of absence is an opportunity for students to focus on health and well-being, and when they come back focus on what a school has to offer academically and socially.” But, she said, students find “themselves unable to meet these vague criteria.”

Two suicides in 2015 and 2016 shone a spotlight on Yale’s leave policies. Luchang Wang, a sophomore who suffered from mental illness and who had taken a leave as a freshman, according to the Yale Daily News, flew home to California and apparently jumped to her death from the Golden Gate Bridge on Jan. 27, 2015.

Before her suicide was known, she had posted a note on Facebook that launched a campus-wide search. The Daily News reported that Luchang had written: “Dear Yale: I loved being here. I only wish I could’ve had some time. I needed time to work things out and wait for new medication to kick in, but I couldn’t do it in school, and I couldn’t bear the thought of having to leave for a full year, or of leaving and never being readmitted. Love, Luchang.”

That same month, freshman Hale Ross withdrew from Yale after falling from the fourth floor of a dorm in Old Campus. Ross was reinstated for the fall 2015 semester but committed suicide in his residential college room on Oct. 30, 2016, the Yale Daily News reported.

Wang’s farewell Facebook post explicitly expressed her concern that Yale’s leave policies were not designed with her best interests in mind, even though Yale had formed a committee in 2014 to review its withdrawal and readmission policies and recommended reforms in April 2015.

The university’s current policies state: “Yale College reserves the right to require a student to withdraw for medical reasons when, on recommendation of the director of Yale Health or the chief of the Mental Health and Counseling department, the dean of Yale College determines that the student is a danger to self or others because of a serious medical problem, or that the student has refused to cooperate with efforts deemed necessary by Yale Health to determine if the student is such a danger.”

The policy of forcing medical leaves was one of the criteria for which Yale scored poorly in the Ruderman report, which called it “facially discriminatory.”

Yale Press Secretary Thomas Conroy called the policy reasonable and disputed Heyman’s overall conclusions.

“We certainly don’t accept the author’s assessment,” he wrote in an email. “Yale fully and effectively supports its students regardless of a disability, and discriminates against none. Its policies on withdrawal and reinstatement reflect careful study and deliberation, and community feedback.”

According to her report, four of the 15 leave criteria Heyman examined were “especially salient”: “Is ‘community disruption’ grounds for involuntary leave? Are students on leave prohibited from visiting campus? Is there a minimum length of time for the leave? Does the policy communicate entitlement to accommodations based on individualized assessment?”

“Community disruption” was one of the criteria in which Yale scored well because such language is not in its policy. Half of the Ivy League schools do have such language in their policies, however, the report states. Heyman said a school might consider “health-seeking behaviors” grounds for forcing a student to take a leave because it is allegedly disruptive to the community. For example, “telling a roommate, ‘I’m having suicidal thoughts. Can you take me to the health center?’” could be considered a disruption, she said.

Rules against students who are on leave visiting campus means “students who live nearby” cannot visit their friends, creating “a barrier to recovery,” Heyman said. “It certainly does not facilitate recovery. They’re afraid of what happened at Virginia Tech,” where a mentally ill student shot 49 people, killing 32, in 2007. It is the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.

Conroy wrote that, at Yale, students on leave may return to campus if they enroll in Summer Session, which is also a way they can meet the requirement that they complete two courses while on leave. He also referred to the 2015 report, which recommended that students on leave “have continued access to their residential college deans: they should be encouraged to stay in regular contact with the dean both during the period of withdrawal and the period following reinstatement. The sense of alienation experienced by some withdrawn students … could be diminished if students were sent a clear, unequivocal message that they are entitled to maintain a relationship with the dean during the period of withdrawal.”

Heyman said schools’ requiring a minimum time for a leave of as much as two semesters can leave a student sitting at home “without a sense of purpose.” She said the length of the leave should be set “according to the student’s own readiness and not according to these rules that are arbitrary to the student’s trajectory of treatment and recovery.” A student who must return home to have medication adjusted may be able to return to school as soon as January, she said.

Many schools — all but Brown, Cornell and Dartmouth among the Ivies — require a minimum time away when taking a leave. Yale’s policy states that, for a medical leave, an undergraduate “must normally remain away at least one full term before a return to Yale College, not including the term in which the withdrawal occurred.”

Strict deadlines for applying for a leave — Yale students must petition the university by the 15th day of the term — also don’t work in favor of the student’s need, Heyman said.

According to her report, “The policy should specify that students can initiate the process for leave at any time, even after classes have ended. The period between the end of classes and the beginning of final exams is very stressful, and many mental illnesses are exacerbated during this time.”

Half the Ivy League schools, including Yale, lack good communication about accommodations available to students suffering mental illness, Heyman said. “The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability … including mental illness,” such as depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety,” she said. “Under that law, colleges must provide reasonable accommodations to support students to stay in school.” Accommodations might include a reduced course load or extensions on assignments.

“I think the policy should notify the students of these rights … and in some cases this would alleviate the need for a leave,” Heyman said.

Conroy disputed the criticism of accommodations at Yale. “Yale has an extensive support system for students that few schools can equal,” he wrote. “Students live in or are affiliated with a residential college with a head of college and a dean who are always [ready] to help with any problem, and to find ways and accommodations to help students thrive and progress. The mental health counseling, if needed, is free and provided by excellent and caring clinicians.”

Yale did receive full credit from Heyman for its policy of allowing two leaves per student, its flexibility about how long leaves may be extended and for its deadlines to apply for reinstatement.

According to the 2015 Yale report reviewing its policies, “There is no question that Yale College is committed to the reinstatement of all students who have withdrawn. In fact, the vast majority of students who apply for reinstatement are reinstated. But the process of reinstatement is not therefore inconsequential or needless. Life as a student in such an exciting but high-octane academic and social environment can be full of innumerable sources of pressure and stress. It is not an environment to which all students can easily return after a withdrawal, especially if that withdrawal involved difficult or painful circumstances.”

While both Yale’s report and the Ruderman paper focus primarily on undergraduates, graduate and professional students at Yale long have criticized the university’s mental health policies, citing them in their efforts to negotiate a contract between the administration and Local 33, the graduate students’ union.

Lucia Hulsether, a doctoral student in religious studies, said she decided she needed to take a mental health leave after her brother’s suicide in 2017. “I hadn’t been able to get in to see a counselor consistently [and] I had already missed the deadline for petitioning for medical leave,” she said. By missing the deadline, she would have had to pay a fee to be able to stay on the Yale health plan while losing income from her teaching duties.

She ended up using one of her two dissertation fellowships, which are granted in order for students to focus on writing their dissertations, as a medical leave. “I still expect to graduate and am lucky,” she said. “What it’s meant is I’ve had to do a high concentration of writing at the same time as I’m teaching.”

Graduate students do have different rules for taking leaves and have the option of seeing a therapist in the Magellan network in addition to those at Yale Health. But the Magellan counselor she was matched with, close to the anniversary of her brother’s death, thought Hulsether needed to be seen more than once a week, which Yale would not allow.

Hulsether said she “ended up seeing someone a couple of times at Yale University. She had a one-year appointment so ended up leaving at the end of that year. They’re very, very busy; there are long waits.”

Heyman said her findings should be seen as “a real opportunity for leadership here … not to make Yale or any other school a villain in this,” but to “work to find solutions to the more difficult issues.”


edward.stannard@hearstmediact.com; 203-680-9382.