NEWS’ VIEW: Fix mental health policy

Yale administrators must clarify and reform policies on withdrawal, readmission and care.

Every year, students come forward with testimonies of how Yale’s mental health services have failed them. But despite their demands for change, these same concerns persist.

Yale Mental Health & Counseling is among the largest and most comprehensive facilities of its kind in the nation and administers quality care to thousands annually. More than 50 percent of students use mental health services during their time here. But according to the Yale College Council’s report on mental health, one third of those students are frustrated by their experiences.

Students have repeatedly pointed out cracks in the system — often at the cost of their privacy — and the University should not let their concerns go unanswered.

The time has come for policy revision. Before specific solutions can be identified, existing policies must first be transparently laid out.

The current Yale Mental Health website fails to address the many crucial questions that students have when they approach Yale Mental Health. Fortunately, Yale College Dean Mary Miller announced in December 2013 that administrators are revamping the website. The project must be completed expediently, and the new website should answer at least the following: How confidential are my sessions with the therapist? When is someone forced into hospitalization? Under what circumstances would I be forced to withdraw? How will my diagnoses affect a request for job security clearance in the future?

Contrast Yale’s website with that of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT’s site has a dedicated “Student Questions” tab, where all of the procedures are laid out clearly under the headings of general questions, hospitalizations, medical withdrawals and privacy. Learning from the strategies implemented at many of our peer institutions, the University can rethink its communication approach regarding mental health services.

Policy clarity is the most effective avenue for Yale Mental Health to encourage people to seek help in the first place. After hearing anecdotes of peers forcibly hospitalized or sent home without understanding the policies that require their removal, many students become afraid to ask for counseling. Responsible mental health treatment includes fully informing current and prospective patients, enabling everyone to begin their care with a clear idea of what to expect.

The University is moving in a positive direction by updating its site. The new mental health website provides an opportunity to outline the rationale behind existing policies on withdrawal and readmission. And we hope this information will lead to a discussion and reevaluation of these policies.

Students may choose to take a leave of absence until the 10th day of the term, according to the Yale College Programs of Study. But after this point, those who decide to withdraw must do so for two consecutive semesters. In contrast, Harvard College permits students to take a leave of absence for a single semester up until the seventh Monday of the term, and students who request to withdraw after this point receive individual consideration. Yale’s narrow window inevitably deters some students from withdrawing for fear of removal from campus for an entire year without the promise of readmission.

Similarly, readmission policies should be reevaluated in light of student testimony. To receive readmission after a leave, students must complete the equivalent of two term courses outside Yale. This stipulation can prove burdensome, as students cannot apply their financial aid to classes outside the University. It can also mentally strain those recovering from their illnesses. Administrators should reconsider whether these personal and financial burdens are worth the requirement.

Over half the respondents to a YCC survey question about scheduling felt they did not have a reasonable wait time after first contacting Yale Mental Health. Lengthy wait times for treatment could exacerbate existing symptoms and frustrate students in need. Adding more counselors to Yale Mental Health and developing a calendar that gives accurate estimates of wait times is an appropriate answer to this criticism. Such expansion is particularly crucial given that the student body will grow by 800 students with the addition of two new residential colleges in 2017.

Policy is only one part of the larger movement for improving mental health at Yale; changing campus culture and attitudes toward mental illness is crucial as well. We must all be involved in this transformation. But our top administrators can lead the way by taking the first critical step of fixing our policies.

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