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Content warning: This article contains references to suicide and self-harm.
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In recent days, questions about medical withdrawals have circulated on social media, prompting students to share their experiences and qualms regarding Yale College’s withdrawal and reinstatement policies.
The loss of Rachael Shaw-Rosenbaum ’24, who died by suicide last week, has sparked conversations about Yale’s medical withdrawal policies. After a Facebook post inaccurately claiming that Yale denied Shaw-Rosenbaum medical withdrawal prior to her death was widely circulated in her home community of Anchorage and among college students across the country, students spoke out online about Yale’s policies governing withdrawals, sharing fears about the reinstatement process and the threat of forced withdrawals.
Yale has since released a statement denying that Shaw-Rosenbaum ever formally requested a medical withdrawal, and a source close to Shaw-Rosenbaum corroborated Yale’s statement to the News. Beyond the lack of a formal request, the circumstances leading up to her death remain unclear.
Still, students familiar with Yale’s medical withdrawal process said that changes to the University procedures are long overdue. The News spoke to eight individuals who withdrew or considered withdrawing from Yale for mental health reasons. All of the students expressed some level of frustration with the policies that they say can feel overly punitive, isolating and expensive. Four individuals cited fears of forced withdrawal as barriers to being able to seek the help that they need.
“To make a student that has zero control over what they’re experiencing, whether it’s mental health related or physical health related — to make them choose between their well being and their Yale education is completely ridiculous,” Griffin Wilson ’24, a student who considered a medical withdrawal due to struggles with mental health, said. “And ultimately it can lead to some pretty severe consequences.”
On Friday, a Facebook post written by an Anchorage parent circulated widely in the Anchorage and Yale communities. It included an inaccurate description of Shaw-Rosenbaum twice petitioning and twice being denied medical withdrawal from Yale. In its first public comment on Shaw-Rosenbaum’s death, Yale released a statement Saturday denying that she requested a leave of absence or withdrawal. The News confirmed with her boyfriend, Zack Dugue, that she never formally requested withdrawal. The larger circumstances leading up to her death remain unclear.
The post, which included a letter written by another author, described Shaw-Rosenbaum allegedly petitioning Yale “to take a leave from school and attend a mental health facility.” The letter alleged that Yale informed her that “her enrollment would not be held and she would have to reapply. Rachael petitioned the decision. Yale denied her appeal.”
The woman who wrote the letter acknowledged in an interview with the News that it was based on secondhand information, making it “hearsay,” and directed the News to a counselor and teacher from Shaw-Rosenbaum’s high school as potential sources of the information, both of whom told the News that they had not spoken to Shaw-Rosenbaum in a long time and had no prior knowledge of her mental health struggles at Yale.
In a statement issued by the University on March 27, the University declared the allegations in the letter to be “unequivocally false.” Yale subsequently updated that statement to include a message of grief and mental health resources, neither of which were originally included. Instead of “unequivocally false,” the statement now says that the allegations are “simply not true.”
“Rachael did not ask her dean, or any other administrator in the College or Yale Health, if she could spend time away from Yale,” the edited statement reads. “Yale College would never deny anyone permission to take time off to address a health concern; anyone who asks for that permission receives it. Every semester, students take leaves and withdrawals, then return later to resume their studies.”
Dugue, who is a first year at the California Institute of Technology, told the News that he and Shaw-Rosenbaum spoke every day, and she had never mentioned petitioning for nor requesting a mental health withdrawal.
Still, Dugue said that he is grateful that out of the tragedy of Shaw-Rosenbaum’s death, communities reignited conversations about Yale’s withdrawal and reinstatement policies.
“Rachael wouldn’t want us to be talking about her; she would want us to be talking about the next kid,” Dugue told the News. “Because there’s going to be a next kid, and she would want us to be focused on saving them.”
Yale College’s withdrawal policies
According to the Yale College Programs of Study, there are two ways students can take time off from Yale: through a leave of absence or a withdrawal.
A student “in academic good standing” may petition the Committee on Honors and Academic Standing by the 15th day of the term to take up to two terms of absence. Having academic good standing means a student has earned a sufficient number of course credits corresponding to their class year and has no more than three grades of F in a term of over two or three successive terms. To return to campus from leave, students only need to notify their residential college dean by the beginning of the term specified in the student’s petition to the Committee. If a student is granted a leave of absence, they are given a rebate for any tuition paid and a prorated refund for room and board.
However, a student who leaves Yale after the 15th day of a term must withdraw from Yale College with tuition rebate amounts depending on the date of withdrawal. There are five types of withdrawals — academic, medical, personal, disciplinary and financial. Students who have withdrawn are not permitted to stay in campus residences, use University resources or facilities, attend classes or participate in extracurriculars. They may only come to campus with permission from their residential college dean or the Dean of Student Affairs.
Unlike taking a leave of absence, withdrawing does not imply a right to automatically return. Students who have withdrawn must go through a reinstatement process in order to return to Yale.
“Withdrawn students do not lose their ‘spot’ at Yale, and despite a common misperception, they do not have to re-apply for admission,” Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd wrote to the News. “Nearly all student requests for reinstatement are granted for the following semester; in many cycles, all applications are approved.”
Withdrawal for medical reasons must be approved by the director of Yale Health or the chief of Yale’s Mental Health and Counseling department.
According to the Yale College’s leave of absence, withdrawal and reinstatement procedures, while a student may voluntarily withdraw, Yale College also “reserves the right to require students to withdraw in certain cases.”
Cases for forced medical withdrawal are evaluated based on whether “the student is a danger to self or others, the student has seriously disrupted others in the student’s residential or academic communities, or the student has refused to cooperate with efforts deemed necessary by Yale Health and the dean to make such determinations,” according to the Yale College Programs of study.
According to Paul Hoffman, chief of Yale Mental Health and Counseling, mandatory medical withdrawals are “very rarely used.”
To return to Yale College following a medical withdrawal, students must meet requirements set by the Committee on Reinstatement, which aims to determine whether students have the ability to return to Yale and finish their degree in academic good standing.
According to the Reinstatement FAQs, to be reinstated, students must submit an application form and a personal statement. Additionally, withdrawn students must get letters of support for their reinstatement, and students on medical withdrawal must also get letters from clinicians. All students must also undergo interviews with the Committee on Reinstatement, and students on medical withdrawal must also interview with Yale Health administrators.
Finally, according to the Yale College Programs of Study, students who have withdrawn must complete two college-level courses at another college of their choosing or through Yale Summer Session. They must earn A or B grades in order to return. Students who withdraw during a term must normally remain away for at least one full term, not including the term of withdrawal.
According to the Yale College Programs of Study, while the majority of students are granted reinstatement, it is not guaranteed. If a student’s reinstatement is denied, they have the chance to apply for reinstatement again in a future term.
Yale’s medical leave policies were thrown into the national spotlight following the death of Luchang Wang ’17, who died by suicide in 2015 while enrolled at Yale College. In a Facebook post just hours before her death, Wang called attention to Yale’s policies surrounding medical leave.
“Dear Yale: I loved being here. I only wish I could’ve had some time,” the 2015 Facebook post read. “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.”
Public outcry following Wang’s death was enough to bring about some changes. Previously, reinstatement after a mental health withdrawal required an in-person interview in front of the reinstatement committee, which, in addition to the requirement to complete two college level courses, could be cost-prohibitive. After Wang’s death, Yale updated its policies to allow students petitioning for reinstatement to conduct interviews online, and to make it clear that students on financial aid can receive need-based scholarships for Yale Summer Session to complete their two courses. If students elected to take their two courses at another college or university close to home, Yale would eliminate their Student Income Contribution the following semester to make up for costs of non-Yale classes.
Three years later, a 2018 Ruderman Foundation report gave Yale an “F” grade for its medical withdrawal policies. Yale’s grade, along with Dartmouth’s rating, was the worst in the Ivy League. The highest was a “D+” for the University of Pennsylvania.
Based on that report and interviews with eight students familiar with the medical withdrawal process, Yale’s changes since 2015 have not gone nearly far enough.
Fear of involuntary withdrawal
While some students hope to be granted a medical withdrawal, others fear it. And for those students, the anxiety about a mandatory medical withdrawal — a procedure Boyd described as “exceedingly rare” — can prevent them from seeking the care they may need.
A member of the class of 2019 — who asked to remain anonymous out of fear for revealing private medical information — said they struggled with their mental health throughout their time at Yale. The individual stated that there were times that they knew they should have been hospitalized, but they were “absolutely terrified of and resistant to this option” since the individual believed that a stay in the hospital could lead to a forced medical withdrawal.
When the individual did speak to the on-call therapist during mental health crises — a service provided to all Yale students through Yale Mental Health and Counseling — they explained that they intentionally presented the appearance of being in better mental health than they were. In those meetings, they emphasized that they did not intend to harm themselves, despite having thoughts to the contrary, to “avoid losing agency” over their own treatment and enrollment status.
“Looking back, I am so, so sad for the version of me who didn’t get help because they were afraid that it wouldn’t really be help,” the individual wrote in an email to the News.
Jen Frantz, originally a member of the class of 2019, but who did not finish her bachelor’s degree, took her first medical withdrawal due to her declining mental health in March 2017. After applying for reinstatement in fall 2018, Frantz was rejected. After applying for reinstatement a second time, she was permitted to return to campus in spring 2019 but shortly after the start of the term she decided to take another medical withdrawal. She does not plan on returning to campus to complete her degree.
Frantz told the News that she frequently feared being forcibly withdrawn from Yale. She described being hospitalized after returning to campus in spring of 2019 and begging the hospital to interact with her outside therapist rather than Yale Mental Health and Counseling. Even though Frantz eventually decided to take a second voluntary medical withdrawal, she feared being stripped of the agency to make her own choice about what would be best for her health.
Nancy Xu, originally a member of the class of 2022, decided to voluntarily take a medical withdrawal after fearing she would be forced into the withdrawal process. Xu, who withdrew from Yale in February 2020, told the News that she was “not thrilled” with the idea of withdrawal, but decided to take one after her therapist and dean increasingly brought up the idea.
“If you don’t leave, then you will continue to have to meet with your [dean and therapist] who are kind of looking over your shoulder all the time,” Xu said. “It just got to the point where I felt like I was under such a degree of surveillance and pressure that I didn’t feel safe staying at Yale, and the fear of involuntary withdrawal was definitely a piece of that.”
Xu is currently undergoing the reinstatement process, and hopes to return in the fall as a member of the class of 2024.
According to Boyd, while she understands that students are concerned about involuntary medical withdrawals, they are “exceedingly rare.”
“It is a common misconception that any serious mental health concern will automatically prompt a withdrawal,” Boyd wrote to the News. “In fact, students most often remain on campus while receiving treatment, and usually return to campus even after hospitalizations. Another common misconception is that students who take medical withdrawals will lose their place and risk not being able to return to Yale. That is just not true. Once they have met the reinstatement requirements, all withdrawn students can return to Yale. I hope students will talk openly with the people who are caring for them, to help guide that care.”
A fear of asking for help
In addition to a fear of forced withdrawal, some students expressed that anxiety about the reinstatement process can keep them from seeking a medical withdrawal in the first place.
Griffin Wilson ’24, who was originally a member of the class of 2023, told the News that he inquired about a medical withdrawal in February 2020, after his first year at Yale was marked by severe depression, anxiety and a suicide attempt. After learning about Yale’s reinstatement policies, and that he would have to withdraw for an entire year rather than just the remainder of the semester, Wilson decided to try to “tough out” the rest of the semester — a decision that, without the COVID-19 pandemic, he said may have been dire.
“Honestly, if it wasn’t for COVID-19 sending me home in March, I one-hundred percent can confidently say that I would not have made it; I would have taken my own life,” Wilson said. “And I would have been the kid dead in their dorm room. That was the way it was going.”
Upon returning home due to COVID-19, Wilson finished the spring 2020 semester remotely and then enrolled in a residential treatment program. He is taking a leave of absence for the 2020-2021 school year and plans to return to Yale in fall 2021.
According to Boyd, the reinstatement process is designed to aid students for a successful transition back to Yale.
Stephanie Addenbrooke ’17 DIV ’20, a former Editor in Chief for the News, shared that she never formally asked for or took a medical withdrawal during her time as an undergraduate out of fear of the many uncertainties. As a low-income international student, Addenbrooke did not see withdrawal as a feasible option due to the complicated logistics of visas and the requirements of reinstatement. She was afraid of the repercussions of withdrawing, and she also feared that if she disclosed too much about how she was actually feeling to the Yale mental health counselor she was seeing, she may be asked to withdraw.
“The biggest thing for me was when I was at my worst mentally was also when I was supposedly at my best,” Addenbrooke told the News. “I was the editor of the Yale Daily News, I was in Grand Strategy, I had an amazing internship lined up. But the idea of losing all of those things — not just Yale, but also everything that went with it such as my friend group, graduating with friends and my extracurriculars — and coming home and feeling like I had failed, prevented me from really seeking the kind of help I probably needed.”
Financial barriers to withdrawal and the two-course requirement
James Brandfonbrener ’22 was originally a member of the class of 2021. But in November 2019 — more than halfway through the semester amid poor mental health and struggles to keep up with his class work — Brandfonbrener was granted a medical withdrawal.
Brandfonbrener explained to the News that the first barrier he faced to getting the medical withdrawal was a financial one. Because he withdrew after the midterm, he said he felt like there was a “significant financial disincentive to simply stick through [his] mental illness and finish the term.” According to the Yale College Undergraduate Regulations, students who withdraw after midterm are not entitled to “rebate of any portion of the tuition, room, and board fees due or paid for that term.”
“One of the things that helped me make the decision to [medically] withdraw was that I had considered making that decision before so my parents were ready for it,” he told the News. “We bought tuition insurance because we thought I might not make it through, but had I not had that advantage from my parents, it felt like I was being encouraged to ‘tough it out’ at the expense of my own health to avoid the tuition and course credit issue — after all, there is a $30,000 incentive to just keep going.”
Lucy Wilkins ’22, former YTV editor and current Yale Daily News digital and outreach desk editor, took a medical withdrawal in the fall of 2017 due to physical health reasons and returned in the spring of 2019. While she said she returned “happier and healthier” from her time away, she also found it difficult to meet the two-course requirement as a first-generation, low-income international student.
The cost of attaining those credits was a major concern to her, and finding an institution in which to enroll was challenging. Since Wilkins is from the United Kingdom, she could not attend Yale Summer Session because her visa was deactivated until she was reinstated, and Yale did not accept online credits for reinstatement prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Wilkins stated that the policies surrounding course credits have the potential to disadvantage students — especially the students who rely financially on Yale, as well as international students.
Alicia Abramson ’24, originally a member of the class of 2022, took a medical withdrawal in the fall of 2019. Abramson described the two-course requirement as a barrier that made her time away from campus on medical withdrawal — a time she hoped would be spent focusing on her mental health — feel stressful and arduous.
“I left Yale so that I could focus on my mental health without academics, so it is kind of insane that I still had to deal with being a student in order to come back,” Abramson said. “There is so much deterrence from going on leave — from having to apply for reinstatement, to having to pay to take classes to not having Yale support while you do all of it. Sometimes the stress of it all feels like it defeats the purpose of the medical leave.”
Boyd said the two courses are meant to prepare students to return to “the rigors of Yale academics.” She explained that students who face financial hardship in paying for the courses can work with the chair of the Committee on Reinstatement to “explore other options.”
A lack of support during withdrawal
Brandfonbrener described the days after he was granted his medical leave as ones riddled with self-blame and guilt based on some of Yale’s policies. After a student is notified that they are granted withdrawal, they have 72 hours to leave campus and are not permitted to visit campus again without permission from the Dean of Student Affairs or their residential college dean.
Brandfonbrener described his move out period as “pretty brutal” and said that being told to pack up so quickly and not return made him feel like he had something to feel ashamed of for not being able to push through his mental illness and finish the term.
Like Brandfonbrener, Abramson stressed how the medical withdrawal process felt isolating. Since those who withdraw are no longer on a Yale Health insurance plan, lose access to their Yale emails and not generally permitted to be on campus, she described feeling “left on [her] own without Yale’s support.”
Abramson applied for reinstatement in spring 2020 and was granted her request. However, she decided to take a leave of absence for this year due to COVID-19 and intends to return in the fall of 2021.
In an op-ed Frantz wrote for the News shortly before her second medical withdrawal, and once again in a recent interview with the News, Frantz described the lack of support she felt from Yale throughout the medical withdrawal process — especially when she was rejected from her first reinstatement attempt.
“My dream of Yale was that I was going to get to this amazing place and excel, be the best in my particular field and that I was going to love every second of my time here,” Frantz told the News. “But the truth is, I saw all the people around me doing the things I wish I could have done at my dream school but could not because I was sick. I was not well, and I could not get the support I needed through Yale. At the end of the day, I had the realization that I had given that place my all. During the first medical withdrawal, I was focusing on getting better for Yale. But after the second, I wanted to get better for myself. Now, I have thoroughly broken up with Yale on my own terms, and I’ve made my peace with it.”
Students can find more information about Yale’s withdrawal policies in the Yale College Programs of Study.
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