Every day during this pandemic, I never cease to be amazed at how quickly and how drastically health care is being revolutionized. However, despite so much scientific progress, the health care field has neglected certain crucial sectors. Growing divides between so-called “essential” and “nonessential” health care are fueling social stigmas against mental health and reproductive health.

“Essential” health care is what we normally think of in a hospital — emergency room medicine, cardiology, the intensive care unit. But “nonessential” health care is a more murky category. The specialties that fall under “nonessential” health care vary. Historically, however, it has consistently included reproductive health care and mental health care. While we have come a long way in understanding the science of these two areas of medicine, there are still pervasive gaps in how we view them relative to other sectors. 

Policymakers especially have used the pandemic to support their own political agendas for health care, pushing to the side what they deem “nonessential.” In states like Texas and Oklahoma, abortions were banned during the peak of the pandemic except for lifesaving procedures. As a result, some had to travel over 800 miles across their state to receive the urgent care they needed.

But this divide isn’t just something that happens somewhere far removed from us at Yale. As students around me struggled with understanding how to access mental health resources or birth control pills, I realized that the distinction between “essential” and “nonessential” health care permeated heavily into the Yale bubble. After hours of scouring the Yale Health website and weeks of trying to obtain appointments, I — along with so many of the people I know here — just gave up. Students are being blocked from accessing their basic health care needs.

In the admissions process, Yale boasts about how many of its students use mental health services. However, two barriers have prevented students from following through with obtaining this care.

First, students seeking these services often lose heart after not receiving a preliminary appointment until weeks or months later. Mental health issues are often urgent, and the lack of resources in such a large institution is a pressing concern. Also, students who have received care have felt abandoned by those tasked to help them, reporting that the tight schedules of the few health care providers make it difficult to establish personal connections. While baseline services are critical, we have to start delivering quality resources that all students are always able to acquire.

Access to contraceptives, namely birth control, is equally as challenging. Students have puzzled over insurance policies and methods to access them through Yale Health. On top of the lack of information on birth control pills, appointment availability is also scarce. So, most students end up obtaining them elsewhere, if at all.

Yale is no exception to what we see happening in the country at large. We still have a long way to go in terms of fully incorporating mental health and reproductive health into the schema of “essential” health care. The lack of resources dedicated to these programs, the dearth of health care providers and the inaccessibility of information are evidence of the social stigma we have to actively resist. 

Although the pandemic has amplified preexisting divides in health care, it also gives us a chance to recognize and address these concerns, too. We have to be advocates for the health care we need and deserve.

NISHITA AMANCHARLA is a junior in Saybrook College. Her column runs on alternate weeks. Contact her at nishita.amancharla@yale.edu.