At the close of last semester, and at the beginning of this semester, Yale was reminded of and rocked by the suicides of Hale Ross ’18 and Thomas Lawrence ’21.
The Mental Health and Counseling department at Yale Health is an office through which one half of the Yale student body passes before graduating. With so much student traffic, it is no surprise that Yale’s Mental Health and Counseling resources are the objects of both ire and praise. The prospect of Mental Health and Counseling reform can get Yale College Council candidates elected and the benefits it provides can save lives.
In the wake of Lawrence’s death, it’s important to remind ourselves that it is misguided to lay all the responsibility for his death on any one party, however convenient it might be. But, if nobody is accountable, then we can’t honestly evaluate our institutions. So, with due deference to the important work that Mental Health and Counseling does, I want to highlight two central shortcomings of their practices — the problem of waiting time and the problem of transparency.
The problem of waiting — whether for an initial consultation, for a therapist pairing or even for one’s next session — has beset Mental Health and Counseling for years.
In 2013, the Yale College Council released a detailed policy report on the state of mental health at Yale. The report found that, when asked whether they agreed with the statement, “The length of time I waited before receiving help was reasonable, relative to the urgency of my condition,” nearly a third of the over 300 Yale College respondents disagreed, and about a quarter strongly disagreed.
Three years later, Shawn Ta GRD ’17, told the New Haven Register that it took him “about a month for an intake evaluation. … Then it took another month for them to pair [him] with someone.”
Waiting time is to be expected in any institution. But, when an organization is tasked with treating a community’s most vulnerable, weeks of waiting time before an initial consultation can mean the difference between a patient’s mild depression and dark suicidal thoughts.
I sat down with a friend of mine who has a history of mental illness to discuss his thoughts on Mental Health and Counseling at Yale. The first thing he told me he’d change was the waiting time. His was a case of someone whose depression escalated to suicidal thoughts in the two and a half months it took Yale Health services to accommodate him.
The problem of transparency is more pervasive than waiting time, so perhaps it is unfair to lay the whole responsibility of transparency on Yale Health. However, for students who become psychiatric inpatients, there is often a coordinated push by administrators to have them take leaves of absence.
Medical leaves of absence are huge ordeals. They often entail students taking two full semesters off — not including the remainder of the semester in which the student began their leave. Students have to seek out counseling at their homes, take college courses at local state or community colleges and they have to reapply to Yale, which involves several rounds of readmission interviews.
The problems with Yale’s mental leave protocol manifest most harrowingly at the intersection of economic class and psychology. Yale does not provide funding for students’ leaves of absence. This policy effectively creates a toxic feedback loop of anxiety wherein students from low-income families on medical leave lose their support structures at Yale and have the added worry of the monetary toll that supporting their leave will take on their family.
“You would’ve felt burdened with the realities of low-income life, and you would’ve received scorn from your home community,” my friend told me.
His residential college dean told him none of these intricacies. Instead, a leave of absence was presented like a shiny vacation where he would’ve been only a semester behind and would return when ready.
“This was a process that, if I had to go through again, would unambiguously make me feel like my place at Yale was jeopardized. I probably wouldn’t say anything were I to be depressed again,” he told me.
The point of all this is not to disparage Yale Health or the important services they offer. An institution’s shortcomings are not proof of its overall failure. But if Yale’s policies are causing its at-risk students to avoid coming forward out of fear, then Yale needs to change its policies.
Mental health is generally something we try to relegate to the margins. It’s a daunting topic that people don’t know how to handle and often don’t handle. But I hope, in the spirit of Hale and Thomas, that we can push to reform Yale’s Mental Health and Counseling services so that more students can avail themselves of their resources.
Sammy Landino is a sophomore in Hopper College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.