Yale accused of discriminating against suicidal, mentally ill students in lawsuit


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

The lawsuit, which is seeking class-action status in Connecticut’s U.S. District Court, includes reports from two current students, three alumni and an alumni group representing several dozen others. In the court filings, students described being visited at the hospital after Yale officials learned of suicide attempts or otherwise mental health problems and warning that the university could involuntarily kick them out if they didn’t leave school voluntarily.

Yale spokeswoman Karen Peart said in a statement: “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 attempting suicide — said she was visited by three Yale administrators and resisted their pressure to back out, according to the lawsuit.

While she was still in the hospital, she was involuntarily withdrawn by the administrators. After her release, Yale authorities told her that she could only retrieve her belongings with a police escort. When she asked if she could say goodbye to her friends, the university administration told her “she could only do that off campus” because she was no longer allowed on Yale’s property.

The lawsuit comes two weeks after a Washington Post story, based on the accounts of more than 25 current and former students, was cited in Wednesday’s court filings.

“What if Yale finds out?”

Since the story was published, alumni, faculty and students have expressed their concerns and concerns about the university’s mental health policies to Yale’s administration. In response, Yale President Peter Salovey defended the university’s mental health services and the way it deals with suicidal students, while promising more resources and possible policy changes.

In a separate action, Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass) on Wednesday asked federal agencies to issue new guidance for colleges and universities to prevent discrimination against students with disabilities and mental health problems through involuntary medical leave.

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

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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 about this,” she said. “But students have been trying to get Yale to change those policies for years, and all they’ve been willing to do is take small steps and half measures.” I don’t want other students to have to go through what I did.”

Abramson, a 22-year-old junior, said she has been repeatedly denied handicap accommodations that she believes are required by federal law. As a sophomore, she said Yale’s mental health officials did not support her request for an excused absence 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 antipsychotic medications, but told her they would not write notes to help students find academic housing, because then “students would not be able to report their symptoms truthfully. ”

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

Since returning in 2021, she has struggled to get shelter for her mental illness. At the time, sophomores had to live on campus. Because of her eating disorder, she requested to live off-campus — with access to a kitchen rather than tying her meals to an on-campus dining room and its hours of operation — but was denied and had to appeal the decision repeatedly to seek an exemption to obtain .

She asked to be able to attend classes virtually, like many students during the pandemic, to help cope with their ongoing mental illnesses and was denied, despite providing a lengthy two-page statement from her psychiatrist and an additional letter from a doctor who specializes in sleep disorders .

In response to reports by Abramson and others in the lawsuit, the Yale spokeswoman said, “Yale’s faculty, staff and leaders care deeply about our students. … We have taken steps in recent years to make it easier for medically deprived students to return to Yale and to provide additional support to students. We are also working to increase resources to help students.”

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The 41-page lawsuit was filed as a proposed class action with three plaintiffs acting as representatives of all Yale students with mental disabilities: Abramson, Neves, and a nonprofit group called Elis for Rachael. The nonprofit was founded last year after freshman Rachael Shaw-Rosenbaum committed suicide while posting online about the possibility of retiring from Yale.

After the 18-year-old’s death, Yale administrators removed the requirement that withdrawing students take two courses at another university to prove their academic rigor and abolished a mandatory interview with the reinstatement board chair. But students must reapply to return to Yale. The university says nearly all students who choose to reapply are eventually re-admitted, but does not provide figures on mental health withdrawals or how many of those withdrawn students are reapplying.

Wednesday’s court filing included additional accounts from other students who were forced to withdraw and go through Yale’s reinstatement process. The lawsuit alleges that Yale’s withdrawal and psychiatric policies particularly impact students from less privileged backgrounds, including minorities and students from poor families, rural areas and other countries.

A former student, Rishi Mirchandani, described how he retired in 2018 after a mental health crisis and denied his first request to return despite recommendations from his medical supervisors that he was ready and that it would benefit his mental health. He was eventually able to return and graduate in 2019.

Neves – the international student who was removed from Yale while still in hospital – had to return to Brazil within 15 days because she had a student visa, according to the lawsuit. Like other exmatriculated students, she had to forfeit part of the tuition fees she had already paid for the semester and was not allowed to return for almost a year. She is now scheduled to graduate with a degree in art and art history in the spring.

The lawsuit is not seeking monetary damages but is seeking changes to Yale’s allegedly discriminatory practices and policies. Mental health critics and advocates have argued that rather than being forced to retire or remain full-time, Yale students should be given options such as reducing course load or attending part-time.

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

“The law requires them to make reasonable accommodations and change any policies necessary to allow disabled students 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 to students with mental disabilities.”

Goodell and another attorney representing Yale students helped file a similar class-action lawsuit against Stanford University in 2018, which resulted in a landmark settlement a year later. Stanford agreed to give students a greater say in mental health furloughs. And if students choose to stay, the university has agreed to provide disabled-accessible accommodation.

The Stanford case could provide a roadmap for similar changes at Yale. But Harrison Fowler, a student plaintiff in the Stanford case, warned that the settlement did not solve all of the mental health problems on campus. Fowler, who graduated this year, said her lawsuit highlighted the issue and forced Stanford to change some policies and allocate more resources. “But I recently had a friend check into the Stanford hospital and her experience of having no choice but to take a leave of absence was not that different. I know there are still problems.”

Abramson, who is studying cognitive science and hopes to graduate from Yale next fall, said filing a lawsuit against a university she attends as an undergraduate is scary.

“Especially an institution as powerful, wealthy, well-connected and well-respected as Yale,” she said. “There is a certain fear of retribution. But by this point, Yale has done so much to me that anything else would be a drop in the bucket. And if I’ve learned anything from everything I’ve been through over the past few years, it’s that I can handle it.”

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

Alice Crites contributed to this report.