Hours before Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway informed the campus community of the death of Luchang Wang ’17, the student herself had posted a suicide note on Facebook. In her message, she bid goodbye to her loved ones and to Yale.
The end of Wang’s note — in which she discussed her fears about taking time off from Yale and not being allowed to return — casts new light on a campus debate about how the University handles cases of mental illness, withdrawal and readmission. While some students have criticized the University’s policies as cold and demanding, others have emphasized the complex confluence of factors that led to Tuesday’s tragedy.
In a Wednesday phone interview, Officer Daniel Hill of the California Highway Patrol confirmed that at approximately 10:29 a.m. on Tuesday, the CHP received calls regarding a “despondent female” who had crossed over the rail of the Golden Gate Bridge and jumped into the bay below. Hill said the California Coast Guard was called in to check the area but that a body has not been recovered.
“Our officers were able to locate a piece of property — a backpack — which contained identification that was matching [Wang], but we cannot confirm that the person that jumped was the same person because we don’t have the body,” Hill said.
WITHDRAWAL, THEN UNCERTAINTY
Students interviewed who had been close to Wang said she had mentioned suicide before. One of her friends, who asked to remain anonymous, said Wang was severely mentally ill and had struggled with issues of mental illness her whole life.
Caroline Posner ’17 said Wang had openly addressed mental health before, including in their first conversation with one another.
According to Posner, Wang initially started at Yale in the fall of 2012, but then withdrew, re-enrolling in spring 2014 to finish her freshman year. In the fall of 2013, Wang lived and worked in New Haven, Posner said.
Wang’s friend added that Yale’s policies regarding withdrawal and readmission prevented Wang from seeking appropriate and necessary treatment.
“She was routinely lying to her therapist,” the friend said. “It was very common for her to express suicidal ideations and then she immediately followed that up, explaining that if we reported her she would be kicked out of Yale and have no reason left not to kill herself.”
Under Yale’s current leave of absence and withdrawal policies, students may elect to take a leave of absence until the 10th day of a new semester. Students who take leaves of absence may return to campus easily, often simply by emailing their residential college dean.
But after 10 days, the process of leaving Yale becomes far more complicated. Students who wish to take time off must withdraw from the University, and they must apply for readmission before they are allowed to return. Although most students who apply for readmission are accepted, according to the University’s policies, readmission is not guaranteed.
Applicants must fulfill certain requirements before applying for readmission; according to the requirements listed online, the readmissions committee expects them to have been “constructively occupied” during their time away from campus. Students who withdrew for medical reasons are often mandated to complete the equivalent of two term courses. In addition, students must demonstrate “the ability henceforth to remain in academic good standing.”
Readmission is considerably more difficult for students who withdraw for a second time. Yale’s readmission policies, as specified in the Yale College Programs of Study handbook, state that it will only be allowed under “unusual circumstances, ordinarily of a medical nature.”
Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs for Yale College Pamela George, who chairs the Committee on Readmission, said it is vital that Yale’s guidelines concerning withdrawal and readmission be clear and accessible. But she also said that the readmission policies have been in place for decades and are ready for reevaluation.
“There is definitely room for immediate improvement,” she said in an email.
For Wang — who had already withdrawn from the University once during her freshman year — the uncertainty of being readmitted again appeared to play a role in her decision not to withdraw a second time, according to her Facebook note.
“Dear Yale: I loved being here,” she wrote. “I only wish I could’ve had some time. I needed time to work things out and to wait for new medication to kick in, but I couldn’t do it in school, and I couldn’t bear the thought of having to leave for a full year, or of leaving and never being readmitted.”
Chief of Yale Mental Health and Counseling Lorraine Siggins could not be reached for comment, nor could Director of Yale Health Paul Genecin.
Students interviewed who have gone through the withdrawal process, but are not familiar with Wang’s situation, said Wang was not alone in having fears of being denied readmission.
Rachel Williams ’17 said that while she did not personally know Wang, she could relate to the fear of not being readmitted following her own withdrawal in February of 2013. Williams said that while those who knew her and were familiar with her treatment, such as psychiatrists and professors during her time off, sent letters of recommendation during the readmission process, the final decision was left almost entirely to George and Siggins, with whom Williams had only one 20-minute meeting before her return in the spring of 2014.
Williams said that while she could not speak with absolute authority, she got the sense from speaking with others that students who withdraw from the University are not given very many more chances before they are permanently dismissed as students. A large part of this, Williams said, is due to a lack of transparency throughout the process.
“I have gotten the feeling, ‘I better not [mess] up again,’ so I can see why [Wang] would have been afraid,” Williams said. “I would be terrified.”
Wang’s concern that she would not have had enough time for new medications to take effect is also indicative of the unsympathetic nature of Yale’s policies, Posner said.
“What Yale did was force her to choose between trying to juggle that huge burden while surviving at school with her symptoms not fully managed — a cruel, impossible demand — or leaving without certainty of ever being allowed back,” she said. “Yale, like our society, which is still grossly under-equipped for treating mental illness, shares culpability for her death.”
Another student who withdrew for medical reasons and was then readmitted said they had nearly been driven to suicide two years ago by the financial burden and anxiety imposed by Yale’s withdrawal policies.
The student, who asked to remain anonymous, said that while they were not familiar with Wang’s story, the thought that Yale’s policies might have played a role was devastating.
“Make no mistake — the withdrawal and readmission policies are hostile to students with mental illness,” the student said.
However, other students who were close to Wang said that attributing her death to Yale’s mental health policies alone is a gross oversimplification.
Tammy Pham ’15, a close friend of Wang’s who was among the first to respond to her Facebook post, said that while much attention has centered on the difficulties of readmission and Wang’s mention of withdrawal in her suicide note, she does not want people to ignore other factors that may have led to the tragedy.
“I can’t speak for [Wang], but from our conversations, [difficulty with withdrawal] wasn’t the only reason,” Pham said. “I don’t want her story to become, ‘She died because Yale failed her, and if Yale had had a better policy she wouldn’t have died. That’s the vibe I’ve been getting recently, which is very upsetting, because it shows a deep misunderstanding of depression.”
Another friend of Wang’s, who wished to remain anonymous, said that those close to her felt she seemed fixated on the idea of suicide, despite having received medical treatment in the past, and that Wang “was very careful not to preclude [suicide] as a possibility for herself.”
In evaluating the factors that led to Wang’s death, cultural perceptions of mental illness are just as important as Yale’s individual policies, Pham said. She added that while Yale’s policies certainly merit reform, stigmas around taking time off from Yale can be just as off-putting as fear of being denied readmission.
“[Fear of being denied readmission] played a big role in how she felt about taking time off,” Pham said. “But to take that a step further and imply that Yale singlehandedly caused this or could have prevented it is just untrue. There are so many deeper problems at play here, and it’s unfair to blame any one institution or person for this.”
Concerns about campus stigmas surrounding withdrawal were also raised by other students. Williams said she could relate to Wang’s apparent thoughts that leaving Yale was too terrible of an option to consider.
“Yale is a part of our lives — why do we get deluded into thinking that Yale is our whole life and that we can’t tolerate existing outside of it?” Williams said. “[Wang’s suicide] was a source of feeling like you don’t have choices and that she couldn’t pick the choice not to be here.”
Holloway said that during his time as master of Calhoun College, students often fought hard against the idea of leaving Yale.
Holloway said that while the residential college dean and master should always try to reassure students that taking time off is an acceptable option, they often meet the most resistance from students themselves.
“That was always my experience in Calhoun, that usually it’s the students who are desperate not to leave, for a whole range of reasons,” he said.
Asian American Cultural Center Head Coordinators Hiral Doshi ’17 and Jessica Liang ’17 said the cultural house has pushed for more awareness surrounding the stigmatization of mental illness within the Asian-American community. Doshi said that sometimes members of the community are discouraged from opening up to their own families or voicing personal issues to others, which makes a safe environment at Yale that much more important.
“We understand what our community is going through and we don’t have the resources to be able to address this issue properly,” Doshi said. “We don’t want to see anything happen like this ever again.”
A memorial service for Wang will be held on Jan. 31 at 2 p.m. in Battell Chapel.