Valeria Navarrete

It is a curious thing to grieve someone you’ve never known but share a few things in common with. I never knew Rachael. Everything I know about her is secondhand. She was in Branford; I am in Saybrook. We both did Directed Studies. It feels surreal now to read the YDN article in which she talks about moving in alone and crying. As an international student who didn’t know anyone on campus, I carried multiple boxes from 250 Church St. all the way to the basement of Vanderbilt Hall on my own. I felt for Rachael.

This is the second suicide that has happened during my time at Yale. In 2018, it was Thomas Lawrence. In 2016, it was Rae Na Lee and Hale Ross. I remember what Ross’s father, Jack Ross, wrote to the graduating class of 2018: “Strive to be your best, but accept yourself for who you are.” When I was struggling with my own depression, my sister said something similar to me:

“The most challenging part about college is not killing ourselves trying to achieve all of these goals, but facing the self that keeps failing our expectations. Once we can accept that self, we can truly be at peace with who we are and whoever we may become. Because we have seen the worst version of ourselves and fallen into the deepest pit, but we were still at peace with what we saw.”

I will never know what went through Ross’s mind minutes before he died, but I recognize myself in his endless striving. I could never quite figure out how to balance the desire for excellence and self-acceptance — they seemed necessarily at odds, and it was often the former that won out.

Around two weeks before the end of my sophomore year, I went to Yale Mental Health and Counseling for an intake appointment. I was struggling with severe anxiety and depression. I was told that since it was almost the end of the semester, I would not get assigned a therapist in time. I just had to hold on and take it one day at a time. So I did. I waited.

As summer came to a close, I started to panic. I did not feel prepared for junior year at all. Remembering how much I struggled the previous semester, I went to Yale Health before the semester even began for a new intake appointment. It took them two weeks to assign me a therapist, and we agreed to have weekly sessions.

Therapy was, in truth, frustrating. It’s essential that people seek help when they feel like they are struggling, but looking back, I wonder whether therapy was the right fit for me. I always left these sessions feeling vaguely annoyed or unsatisfied. It aggrieved me that I had to walk from Cross Campus to Yale Health and all the way back for a 30-minute session, and I had nothing to show for it. I suspect I was expecting too much from therapy, treating it as a silver bullet. But this was what everyone recommended: Get therapy. So I did.

 

With two months left before graduation, I have been able to make it this far thanks to dean’s excuses and the generosity of faculty who showed their understanding through various extensions. But what really kept me sane was this strange sense of camaraderie with my peers, a mutual understanding that we were all struggling, but struggling together was better than alone. When it was well past midnight and I couldn’t breathe with the weight of all I had to do pressing down on me, I knew my therapist wasn’t available but my friends were.

I wish I could say that everything would become better if Yale were to improve its mental health care system: reduce wait times and hire more therapists of color and queer therapists — in other words, meeting the bare minimum of student demands. While therapy is essential to helping many people live with and overcome mental health challenges, it is not a silver bullet, and I can attest to that. The thing with therapy is that they’re always playing catch-up. Often, a crisis happened early in the week and by the time I met with my therapist I felt like it was over. I would try to summarize what happened, unable to convey all the details and catching myself downplaying how bad it was. Rachael’s death has sparked a conversation on campus about mental health at Yale  —  only after someone dies do we realize with a jolt that this isn’t normal. We are not fine.

The problem isn’t just inaccessible mental health care. Yale itself can be an incredibly difficult place to be. It’s Yale’s culture of striving for excellence at the cost of self-acceptance and self-care. This is not just because of the kind of people we are, but also the kind of environment Yale is, driven by an endless list of deadlines, tasks and expectations. It’s the fear of falling behind our peers, the stress of juggling multiple commitments and the anxiety of having a plan for breaks and the future beyond Yale. This is unsustainable. Too many students will have died and suffered by the time Yale realizes this.

In the end, it was not my therapist that really improved my mental health. It was my leave of absence last fall, when I had absolutely no schoolwork and a part-time job that wasn’t too demanding. I cooked. I slept. I read. I loved taking time to water the houseplants every week. I had not felt such peace in years, and I welcomed it. It was a different pace of life, a different approach to work. It was the best decision I had made at Yale. I understand that this is out of reach for most students. And I wonder what it says about Yale that removing myself from it was the best thing to happen to my mental health since the beginning of college.

 

There will be more violence in the future: shootings, politics, disasters. These, the University cannot control. Such is life in America. But there cannot be another suicide.

I ask that Yale listen.

Therapy does not get at the root of mental health issues at Yale, but it is the most common recommendation for students who are struggling. Two weeks should be the absolute maximum wait time for students to be assigned a therapist, and the University should hire more therapists in anticipation for a larger than usual class of 2025. Student organizations like Students Unite Now and Yale Young Democratic Socialists of America have produced concrete demands related to mental health care, and administrators should seriously consider these.

No student should be denied the various accommodations I was granted during my time at Yale. We shouldn’t have to perform trauma to get a dean’s excuse. Professors should proactively adjust assignments and cancel classes in the wake of an event that affects everyone on campus. I was planning to go to class last Tuesday night even though it was the last thing on my mind, simply because I thought I should. It was only when the professor emailed us that we should feel free to go to the vigil that I actually felt free to go. I understand that professors put tremendous care into creating their curriculum, but if we cannot focus or participate, we cannot learn.

Mental health should be an actively considered factor when making University-wide decisions. Faculty and students alike have talked about how break days have not afforded them a true break and how unusually stressful this semester has been. This change was not inevitable: By maintaining twice-weekly testing and enforcing the Community Compact, for example, Yale could have preserved spring break while still balancing public health needs. It is difficult to believe that Yale could not foresee the depth of impact that canceling spring break could have on students’ mental health.

Whenever Yale comes up with new policies that might exacerbate students’ mental health challenges, we get the impression that administrators are removed from the reality of students’ lives — or worse, that they are aware but cannot be bothered to care in the pursuit of academic excellence.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there needs to be a fundamental cultural shift at Yale: As I said earlier, a different pace of life, a different approach to work. I have seen that this is possible from being in a class where students set their own deadlines for assignments and there was no penalty for submitting late work. I have been in a class where students could submit artwork or fiction for their final projects, incorporating their interests. It was not until my final semester of college that I finally began to understand that we are more than the endless sum of our assignments, deadlines and accomplishments — and I am still learning.

I am asking us to reimagine what Yale might look like if it de-centered excellence and normalized underachievement, self-care and community building. Where we understand that a part of becoming a fully-formed, balanced adult in this world is learning how to nurture our whole selves — physical, mental and spiritual. Yale should not be a place where we merely survive, but one where we thrive.

In a couple months, I will be graduating, but I worry for the students who will come after me. I dread the next time I hear about “very sad news” as an alum.

Rest in peace, Rachael. And Yale — we can do so much better.

Eui Young Kim | euiyoung.kim@yale.edu