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Class Action Suit Leads to Changes in Mental Health Policies at Yale

By Lee G. Bolman

In 2015, a Yale sophomore math major died by suicide after posting a desperate message on social media that she “couldn’t bear the thought of having to leave for a full year, or of leaving and never being readmitted.” In 2021, a first-year student feared that if Yale found out about her mental health struggles, she might be forced to withdraw, lose her scholarship, and then have to reapply for admission. She died by suicide a few days later.

How should Yale deal with students with suicidal ideation? Were its policies having the perverse effect of making some of them more likely to kill themselves? An article in the Washington Post in November, 2022 (Yale accused of discriminating against suicidal, mentally ill students in lawsuit) suggested that Yale might be doing exactly that. President Salovey issued a response in defense of the university, writing that “The health and well-being of Yale students are primary university priorities. The Washington Post article does not reflect Yale’s efforts to foster student wellness.”

Activist students and alumni were not convinced, and a group of them initiated a class action suit against the university later that month. A new article in the New York Times (At Yale, a Surge of Activism Forced Changes in Mental Health PoliciesThe New York Times (nytimes.com) indicates that the lawsuit has had an effect. A settlement announced last month contains significant changes that should make life easier for students dealing with significant mental health issues. Students who need to take a leave will now have the option to extend their health insurance coverage for a year. They will no longer be banned from the campus or lose their campus jobs. Returning from a leave will be less onerous. An important concession that Yale had resisted will allow students to study part-time in certain medical emergencies, a step beyond what other progressive schools like Stanford have taken.

Yale is not alone in facing criticism and legal action on the issue. In the context of a growing youth mental health crisis, Brown, Princeton and Stanford, among others, have all faced similar pressures. But the university may now be moving from laggard to leader. Alicia Abramson, a senior who is one of the two student plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit, said Yale’s response was better than she had expected. “It’s hopeful, in the sense that maybe they are finally taking this thing seriously,” she said.

 

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