In September 2019, I showed up in tears at my Yale University psychiatrist’s office. After getting straight A’s in most of my classes my freshman year, my depression and insomnia increased at the start of my sophomore year, leaving me unable to fall asleep until just a couple hours before I had to go to class. I was desperate for help.
I asked if some of my absences could be excused as long as I kept up with my coursework. I was told that the university’s Mental Health and Counseling Office had a policy of not writing notes in support of accommodations for people with disabilities because students could be lying about their symptoms, the very symptoms my psychiatrist had prescribed for me to treat. an antidepressant and an antipsychotic.
I am now a junior at Yale. Last month, I was one of two named plaintiffs, as well as a Yale mental health advocacy group called Elis for Rachael, who filed a class action lawsuit against the university for failing to accommodate and discriminate against students with mental health disabilities. .
I didn’t want to spend my time at Yale suing them. It is terrifying to face a powerful and elite institution that manages an endowment greater than the GDP of 103 countries. But despite dozens of students calling for change, Yale has made minimal attempts at reform. For years, students and alumni have organized to call for Yale to make it easier to access mental health treatment on campus, address mistrust in mental health services, and make medical discharge and reinstatement policies less punitive. These focused efforts have resulted in little change. Every second we wait puts the lives of students at risk.
People with mental health disabilities have federally protected civil rights, just like people with physical disabilities. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, colleges must provide academic accommodations and other reasonable modifications for students with all types of disabilities. Our lawsuit argues that Yale has not.
As plaintiffs, we do not seek monetary compensation. All we ask is that Yale change its policies. I chose to be named in the lawsuit because I did not want other students to go through the agonizing experience that I did.
After being denied support by the school psychiatrist that fall, my mental health took a rapid turn for the worse. She knew that Yale policies didn’t allow part-time enrollment, but she also knew that she couldn’t finish the semester with a full course load, especially without accommodations. Wherever I looked for help, I ran into dead ends. I felt trapped. With no other option, I submitted a withdrawal request.
Once my medical retirement was formalized, Yale seemed primarily concerned with getting me off campus. I had 48 hours to move out of my bedroom. I forfeited 75 percent of my tuition and accommodation fees for the semester, despite only withdrawing a third of the course. My access to student health insurance was revoked. I was officially prohibited from participating in any campus activities, using Yale facilities, or even setting foot on campus without prior permission. I was left isolated and abandoned when I needed help the most. It seemed like even Yale’s façade of caring about my well-being evaporated the moment I wasn’t their problem anymore.
After six months and attending an intensive outpatient therapy program, I felt stable, optimistic, and ready to re-enroll. But the reinstatement process turned out to be another series of daunting obstacles. The application consisted of a personal statement, three letters of support, interviews with Yale administrators, and a course requirement (since waived) for grades of B or better in two classes at an accredited four-year institution, which also he had to pay. There’s a cruel irony in taking time off from school to prioritize my mental health only to be told I have to take classes anyway, I just wasn’t allowed to at Yale.
All of this was intended to show that I had been “constructively busy” during my retirement, so that Yale could assess not only whether I had received effective treatment, but also whether I had used my free time “productively,” in accordance with their policies. . But I didn’t take time off to be productive; I needed to heal. The Yale process made me feel as if my mental health problems were a weakness, a moral failure, a character flaw that I had to correct in order to get my job back.
I returned to campus aware that I was on thin ice. As Yale stipulates for most students who withdraw for any reason, I knew that if I failed a single course my first year back, the university might kick me out, this time involuntarily. This pressure was compounded by a grueling and demoralizing struggle to receive disability accommodations as I was shuttled back and forth between administrators and staff for weeks on end.
My time at Yale has been poisoned by these obstacles and the battle to secure reasonable accommodations. They never treated me like a 19 year old who needed help. Instead, they saw me as a burden and a responsibility.
This problem is not unique to Yale. Pressure cooker universities demand perfection and punish anything less, treating mental health disabilities as evidence of flaw instead of approaching students with compassion and care. The ultimate goal is to produce the leaders of tomorrow, even if it means sacrificing their well-being.
As traumatic as my experience has been, the horrible reality is that I am luckier than many others struggling with their mental health. I was never involuntarily hospitalized and had access to financial support and health insurance outside of Yale. This is not the case for countless students—those who are forced or pressured to withdraw by the universitysubjected to psychiatric incarceration, escorted off campus by police officers, or left without any support once isolated from the university, as detailed in our lawsuit.
The impact of Yale’s discriminatory policies is most severe on students who lack the privilege that I had. Students of color stand up to medical racism. Rural students are cut off from Yale housing and forced to return to places that may lack substantial mental health treatment. International students lose their visas and cannot stay in the US Students who depend on Yale for health insurance suddenly lose it.
The resulting campus culture around mental health is scary. It’s hard to describe the hopelessness of desperately needing help knowing that reaching out could have devastating consequences: it’s like you’re drowning, but you know the life jacket could suffocate you too.
I like to imagine an alternate reality where my story played out differently. One where my angst was met with a process of identifying suitable accommodations, such as part-time course loading or virtual attendance, so withdrawal was not my only option. Or if I were to retire, a world where I would find support, treatment options, resources, and guidance, instead of isolating myself from Yale completely and leaving myself to fend for myself. A world where my struggles didn’t call into question my ability to succeed, where I wasn’t forced to prioritize being a Yale student over being human.
I shouldn’t have had to defend myself so fiercely. Students struggling with their mental health, especially those in crisis, often find themselves in a position where they can’t fight as hard.
Ultimately, our lawsuit strives to take a meaningful step in building a more just world, where students in crisis are greeted with compassion rather than punishment. But it is only one step; Much more effort and advocacy will be required to change the cultural norms that punish mental health disabilities and transform university policies into humane policies that work to genuinely foster student well-being. Because at the end of the day, the question universities should be asking is not “How can we get rid of you?” but rather, “What can we do to help you?”
editor’s note: Yale and the plaintiffs in the lawsuit have asked the court to halt proceedings while settlement discussions begin. When contacted for comment, a Yale spokesperson said in a statement: “We recognize how distressing and difficult it is for the student and their loved ones when a student is facing mental health challenges. When we make decisions and establish policies, our primary focus is the safety and health of students, especially when they are most vulnerable. We believe in creating and maintaining strong and sensible support structures for our students, and in many cases the safest plan includes the parents and family of the student. We have taken steps in recent years to make it easier for students with medical withdrawals to return to Yale and to provide additional support for students. We are also working to increase resources to help students. The University trusts that our policies comply with all applicable laws and regulations. However, we have been working on policy changes that respond to the emotional and financial well-being of students.”
Alicia Abramson is a student at Yale University studying cognitive science and social construction. Outside of school, she is interested in mental health advocacy and works on prison and police abolition in her hometown of Los Angeles.