Yale accused of discriminating against students with mental illness

Yale accused of discriminating against students with mental illness


Current and former Yale students sued the university on Wednesday, accusing the school of systematically discriminating against students with mental health issues and urging them to withdraw.

The lawsuit, which is seeking class-action status in the U.S. District Court in Connecticut, includes testimony from two current students, three former students and a group of former students representing several dozen others. In the court filing, the students described being visited in the hospital after Yale officials learned of suicide attempts or other mental health issues and warned that if they did not leave school voluntarily, the university could involuntarily expel them.

In a statement, Yale spokesperson Karen Peart said, “The university is confident that our policies comply with all applicable laws and regulations. Nonetheless, we have been working on policy changes that address the emotional and financial well-being of students.”

In the lawsuit, an international student – ​​Hannah Neves, who was hospitalized in 2020 after a suicide attempt – recounted being visited by three Yale administrators and resisting their pressure to step down, according to the lawsuit.

A few days later, when she was released from the hospital, she learned that the administrators had involuntarily removed her. Yale authorities then told her that she could only retrieve her belongings with a police escort. When she asked to say goodbye to her friends, university administrators told her “she could only do it off campus” because she was no longer allowed on Yale property.

The lawsuit comes two weeks after a Washington Post article that relied on the accounts of more than 25 current and former students and was cited in court documents on Wednesday.

“What if Yale finds out? »

Since the story was published, alumni, faculty and students have expressed concern and concern to Yale administrators about the university’s mental health policies. In response, Yale President Peter Salovey defended the university’s mental health services and how it treats suicidal students, while promising more resources and possible policy changes.

In a separate action, Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass) on Wednesday called on federal authorities to issue new guidance to colleges and universities to prevent discrimination against students with disabilities and mental health issues in using involuntary medical leave.

In a letter to the Department of Education and the Department of Justice, Markey cited The Post’s story and other accounts and requested detailed data and answers on the matter by December 20. Markey said urgent action was needed given the growing number of students reporting mental health crises. “No student should be denied access to education because of their disability,” he said.

Alicia Abramson, a current Yale student, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the university.

“I don’t think anyone’s first choice was to go to court for this,” she said. and small steps. I don’t want other students to go through what I went through.

Abramson, a 22-year-old junior, said she was repeatedly denied disability accommodations that she said were required by federal law. As a sophomore, she said Yale mental health officials did not support her request for excused absences because she struggled with depression, an eating disorder and severe insomnia. She said the psychiatrist assigned to her by Yale Mental Health Services was willing to prescribe her antidepressants and antipsychotics, but told her it was their policy not to write notes to help students. to obtain university accommodation, because then “students could lie about their symptoms. ”

When she retired to deal with these mental health issues, she lost her student health insurance and access to therapy due to Yale policies and struggled to get mental help when she needed it. most needed.

Since returning in 2021, she has struggled to secure housing for her mental health issues. At the time, sophomores had to live on campus. Due to her eating disorder, she applied to live off-campus — with access to a kitchen instead of having her meals tied to an on-campus dining hall and her hours — but was denied and accepted. had to appeal the decision several times to obtain an exemption. .

She asked to be able to attend classes virtually, as many students have done during the pandemic, to deal with her persistent mental illnesses and was refused, despite a detailed two-page explanation from her psychiatrist and an additional letter from a doctor who specializes in sleep. troubles.

Responding to the accounts of Abramson and others in the lawsuit, the Yale spokeswoman said, “Yale faculty, staff and leaders care deeply about our students. … We have taken steps in recent years to simplify the return to Yale for students on medical withdrawal and to provide additional support for students. We are also working to increase resources to help students.

The lawsuit was filed as a proposed class action with three plaintiffs representing all mentally ill Yale students: Abramson, Neves, and a nonprofit group called Elis for Rachael. The nonprofit was created last year after freshman Rachael Shaw-Rosenbaum committed suicide, after she expressed concern in online posts that she might have to withdraw from Yale.

Following the 18-year-old’s death, Yale administrators eliminated the requirement for withdrawn students to take two courses at another university to prove their academic rigor and got rid of a mandatory interview with the president of Yale. its reintegration committee. But students still have to reapply to return to Yale. The university says nearly all students who choose to reapply are eventually readmitted, but would not provide numbers on mental health withdrawals or how many of those withdrawn students reapply.

Wednesday’s court filing included additional accounts of other students who were forced to withdraw and go through Yale’s reinstatement process.

A former student, Rishi Mirchandani, has described pulling out in 2018 after a mental health crisis and having his first return request rejected despite recommendations from his medical providers that he was ready and that it would benefit his health mental. He was eventually able to return and graduated in 2019.

Neves – the international student fired by Yale while still hospitalized – was forced to return to Brazil within 15 days because she was on a student visa, according to the lawsuit. Like other withdrawn students, she had to forfeit much of the tuition she had already paid for the semester and was not allowed to return for almost a year. She is now expected to graduate with a degree in art and art history in the spring.

The lawsuit does not seek monetary damages, but seeks changes to what it claims are Yale’s discriminatory practices and policies. Critics and mental health advocates have argued that instead of being forced to withdraw or stay on full-time, Yale students should have options such as reducing course loads or attending at part-time.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the students by attorneys from three groups: Disability Rights Connecticut, Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law and the public interest law firm Vladeck, Raskin & Clark.

“The law requires them to make reasonable accommodations and changes to any policies necessary to give students with disabilities full and equal participation,” said Maia Goodell, one of the attorneys representing the students. “If a university has stairs instead of ramps, students in wheelchairs cannot participate. The same rules apply when students have mental disorders.

Goodell and another attorney representing Yale students helped file a similar class action lawsuit in 2018 against Stanford University, which resulted in a landmark settlement a year later. Stanford has agreed to give students greater influence over whether to take time off for mental health reasons. And if students choose to stay, the university has agreed to provide accommodations for the disabled.

The Stanford case could provide a roadmap for similar change at Yale. But Harrison Fowler, a student plaintiff in the Stanford case, warned the settlement did not address all mental health issues on campus. Fowler, who graduated this year, said their lawsuit brought the problem to light and forced Stanford to change some policies and commit more resources. “But I had a friend recently who checked into Stanford Hospital and his experience of having no choice but to be discharged wasn’t that different. I know there’s still problems.

Abramson, who is majoring in cognitive science and hopes to graduate from Yale next fall, said it was scary to take legal action against a university she still attended as a student.

“Especially such a powerful, wealthy, well-connected and respected institution as Yale,” she said. “There is some fear of reprisals. But at this point, Yale has already done me so much that anything more would be like a drop in the bucket. And if I’ve learned anything from everything I’ve been through in the past few years, it’s that I can handle it.

If you or someone you know needs help, call National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. You can also reach a crisis counselor by sending a message to Crisis text line at 741741.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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