Susan Nolen-Hoeksema ’82, a psychology professor described by her colleagues and students as a devoted, generous teacher, died Wednesday in Yale-New Haven Hospital while recovering from heart surgery. She was 53.
A highly respected researcher who received national recognition for her work on depression, women’s mental health and mood regulation, Nolen-Hoeksema led the Yale Depression and Cognition Program and served as chair of the Psychology Department. Her peers and mentees said she demonstrated a genuine interest in people and an extraordinary ability to balance her duties as a researcher, teacher and mother.
“Susan had a real warmth that was combined with wisdom, good judgment and the ability to be straightforward with people,” said psychology professor Kelly Brownell, who helped recruit Nolen-Hoeksema to Yale’s faculty. “She was just an all-star, and it breaks my heart to lose her so suddenly.”
Students and colleagues said they were shocked by Nolen-Hoeksema’s unexpected death. After contracting a serious blood infection, she was treated at Yale-New Haven and Yale Health over the past month, and doctors eventually diagnosed a heart issue requiring surgery, according to an email sent to faculty, staff and students in the Psychology Department. She died in the Yale-New Haven intensive care unit following heart surgery.
For those in her department, Nolen-Hoeksema served as a motherly influence. Colleagues described her “quiet energy” and desire to support both friends and students.
Nolen-Hoeksema, who was awarded the Graduate School’s mentoring prize in 2007 for excellence in advising students, went out of her way to make time for those she taught, holding individual hourlong meetings every week with the students she advised. She brought freshly baked treats to each lab meeting, and at the end of every semester, she invited her advisees to her house for a home-cooked meal.
Katie McLaughlin GRD ’08 recalled her former professor’s dedicated involvement in even the less glamorous aspects of her students’ studies. When McLaughlin was conducting tedious, time-consuming research outside of New Haven, Nolen-Hoeksema would show up early every morning for the duration of the project with Dunkin’ Donuts and coffee for the entire research team before assisting them in their data collection.
“Susan was happy to do the dirty work of research with her students,” McLaughlin said. “Most people that successful don’t see the need to do that kind of work anymore, but she really got into the trenches with her students.”
Vera Vine GRD ’15, a graduate student in Nolen-Hoeksema’s lab, said her professor encouraged students not to lose sight of humanity in their academic pursuits, reminding them that their studies were not simply about abstract concepts but affected people.
While dedicated to the members of her workplace community at Yale, Nolen-Hoeksema’s generosity was grounded in her life at home as a devoted parent. Students in her lab called her “the ultimate soccer mom” because of her enthusiastic support for her son’s soccer team.
Several of Nolen-Hoeksema’s students remembered a major psychology convention that coincided with the finals of an important soccer tournament for her son. Though Nolen-Hoeksema was one of the convention’s keynote speakers, students said she kept her laptop open on her lap to live-stream her son’s game, and would sneak out of the room for score updates.
“She showed so much devotion,” said Kirsten Gilbert GRD ’14, one of her students. “For graduate students used to working all the time, she was a great role model, reminding us that life outside of psychology and academia is important.”
Nolen-Hoeksema was born in Springfield, Ill. and completed her undergraduate degree in psychology at Yale. She received her doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania and served as a faculty member at Stanford University and the University of Michigan before returning to Yale in 2004.
In addition to scholarly works and a psychology textbook, Nolen-Hoeksema authored multiple books on women’s mental health, including “The Power of Women” and “Women Who Think Too Much: How to Break Free of Overthinking and Reclaim Your Life.”
“I think of her as the person I want to be,” Vine said. “She exemplified kind of everything you wanted to be: the kind of academic, parent and friend, and the kind of teacher you want to be to your own students.”
Nolen-Hoeksema is survived by her husband, Richard, and son, Michael.