Yale Daily News

Content warning: This article contains references to suicide.

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The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255.

Crisis Text Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak with a trained listener, text HELLO to 741741. It is free, available 24/7 and confidential.

To talk with a counselor from Yale Mental Health and Counseling, schedule a session here. On-call counselors are available at any time: call (203) 432-0290. 

Students who are interested in taking a medical withdrawal should reach out to their residential college dean.

Additional resources are available in a guide compiled by the Yale College Council here.

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Nearly nine months after the passing of Rachael Shaw-Rosenbaum ’24, a Yale student who died by suicide last spring, the mental health advocacy group Elis for Rachael is continuing to push for reforms to the University’s mental health services.

The weeks following Shaw-Rosenbaum’s death saw renewed conversation among students and alumni about Yale’s mental health care services. Elis for Rachael emerged from a series of community Zooms during this period organized by Lily Dorman-Colby ’10 and attended by both Yale alumni and Shaw-Rosenbaum’s friends and family. 

Eventually, organizer Rishi Mirchandani ’19 told the News, the group began meeting on a weekly basis, and a core group of leaders emerged. Elis for Rachael is composed of Yale alumni as well as some of those who knew Shaw-Rosenbaum, including her boyfriend, Zack Dugue.

“I never feel like, ‘Oh, I’m not a Yalie, so it shouldn’t matter to me,’” said Dugue, who is a first-year student at the California Institute of Technology. “Because Rachael was, and it mattered to her. She’s the kind of person who would have wanted this fixed.” 

Now, Elis for Rachael has a Facebook group with over 300 members, and it has turned its attention to advocating for policy changes within the University’s mental health services. 

Early this November, the group released a petition listing a set of specific demands. In particular, organizers have called on the University to relax the current requirements for reinstatement to Yale College following medical withdrawals, reform the process for involuntary medical withdrawals and offer an affordable PPO option of University health insurance that would allow both enrolled and medically withdrawn students to see non-Yale mental health providers.

Members of Elis for Rachael take issue with University requirements for reinstatement, which they argue are unreasonably stringent. Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd told the News that there is currently a “very small percentage” of students that are not reinstated after taking medical withdrawals from Yale. In March, Boyd told the News that involuntary medical withdrawals were “exceedingly rare.”

Elis for Rachael released a survey in early April, asking Yale alumni about their experiences with University mental health services. According to organizer Paul Mange Johansen ’88, who is also a professional statistician, the survey found that students’ experiences were “incredibly consistent over time.”

“People who aren’t familiar with serious psychiatric illness may not realize [mental health on campus] is not run-of-the-mill anxiety,” Johansen said. “These are potentially life-threatening problems that need equally serious solutions. And I feel like there’s been no effort to really take this as seriously as it deserves to be and needs to be taken.”

According to Director of Yale Mental Health and Counseling Paul Hoffman, the University is currently in the process of expanding the mental health resources available to students. 

“We’re in year one of a three-year plan for expansion in mental health and counseling with additional clinicians,” Hoffman said. “So there is a trajectory of investing in mental health resources that help broadly.”

Hoffman added that the University’s expansion of mental health resources also came at a time of “unprecedented demand” for mental health care, referencing increased rates of depression and anxiety reported during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On Tuesday, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy MED ’03 SOM ’03 released a public advisory warning of increased mental health challenges among young people as a result of several potential stressors, including the pandemic. 

Johansen, along with Mirchandani and Alicia Floyd ’05, traveled to New Haven to attend the Yale-Harvard football game on Nov. 20, which they spent tabling to raise awareness about the organization among students and alumni. 

For Johansen, the experience of tabling confirmed that expansions and reforms of Yale’s mental health services were widely supported by members of the Yale community.

“My spiel was, ‘Do you want to sign our petition to improve Yale’s mental health services?” Johansen said. “About a third of the people were like, ‘Oh, yeah, where do I sign?’ I didn’t even have to explain anything. That tells you something.”

The group is currently in the process of assembling a “white paper,” a document intended to inform Yale administrators about the issues that students and alumni take with the University’s current mental health services and proposals for how they can be most effectively reformed. 

According to Mirchandani, the paper will also include the results of the survey that the group conducted and examples of effective mental health practices at peer institutions that Yale could potentially emulate. 

“My hope is that once we finalize our white paper, that it can be a how-to guide for a sympathetic administrator to come in and say, ‘Yeah, I’m not comfortable with the way that things are being done; now I have a blueprint for better policies to pitch up the administrative chain,’” Floyd said. 

For many of the alumni involved with the organization, improving the University’s mental health services is a personal cause. 

Floyd struggled with depression during her time at Yale and was asked to take a medical leave by the University after being hospitalized for an overdose. 

Applying to Yale for reinstatement after her withdrawal was a process that Floyd remembers as especially traumatic. 

“It’s hard for me to put into words what about it made it so salient for me, made it stick with me for so long,” Floyd said. “ It’s the only thing in my life that has affected me that profoundly.”

Now, Floyd said, she finds value in reassuring younger Yale alumni that the struggles they faced with

the University’s mental health policies were legitimate and that things get better. She has been able to do that through Elis for Rachael by helping collect testimonies from students and alumni. 

“It feels really good to be able to share that with people,” Floyd said. “And also to share that the nightmares do stop. It stops having that same triggering value that it did for me and that it has for many others for a long time.” 

Yale’s most recent major overhaul of its reinstatement policies was in 2016, when the name of the process was changed to “reinstatement” from “readmission.” The host of reforms announced in 2016 also included changes to the reinstatement application deadlines, an elimination of the application fee for reinstatement and changes to financial aid for students who take medical withdrawals. 

The University’s requirements for reinstatement include taking the equivalent of two term courses at an accredited four-year university — or, with University permission, a community college — receiving documented treatment from a clinician, submitting an application form and participating in interviews with members of the reinstatement committee. According to Boyd, these requirements are intended to make sure that students are ready “to jump back into Yale and succeed in that next semester.”

“We definitely want people to come back,” Boyd said. “There’s a lot of effort put into making sure that students are going to be able to rejoin, but we want them to rejoin when they’re ready. And we want them to rejoin from a place that feels different from where they were when they felt that they had to leave.”

Floyd emphasized the importance of the “collective memory” of alumni who come together to share their experiences. 

Because the student body turns over every four years, Floyd said, it is easy for student advocacy movements to fizzle out as organizers graduate. 

Both Floyd and Mirchandani referenced Students Unite Now as an example of a student advocacy group that has been able to achieve continuity in its advocacy efforts even as leaders come and go. The student income contribution, which SUN had vocally opposed since 2012, was eliminated this October. 

It has been harder for mental health organizations to keep up the same stamina, Mirchandani said, in part because mental health can be “exhausting” to talk about. 

“It’s just too easy for the administration to just wait for this wave to subside, and that’s what’s always happened,” Mirchandani said. “We can show that there were people who never forgot. Alicia graduated and still is bothered by this. I never got over it. These have been long, long brewing grievances.” 

Johansen added that alumni tend to “have a little bit more clout” than many students do, in part because the University relies on alumni donations. 

In addition, Johansen explained, the movement of alumni advocating for mental health reforms includes many professionals with wide ranges of expertise. 

“Any number of Yale graduates are psychologists and psychiatrists who know better and know that this is not what standard of care should be,” Johansen said. “When the endowment just rose $11 billion, you can’t argue you don’t have the resources to do it.” 

Floyd added that the involvement of Shaw-Rosenbaum’s loved ones in Elis for Rachael gives the work that they do an additional urgency. 

Dugue has been involved with Elis for Rachael since the group’s founding, and he continues to attend their weekly meetings. He had hoped to fly out to New Haven to participate in the group’s table at the Game but was prevented from doing so by school commitments. 

“When Rachael was on campus, we called every day,” Dugue said. “She wasn’t able to engage too much in campus culture because of COVID, but she’d still tell me stories— about when she went to a Halloween party and when she started seeing the Branford squirrels and the Beinecke, and all that stuff. I definitely felt a connection to the school, in the sense that it was important to her and the wellbeing of the other students was important to her.”

Dugue has thought about the impact that Yale reforming its mental health policies would have on other universities. 

Yale, Dugue said, could commit to telling parents interested in the University that it would take care of their children, supporting them through challenges with mental health, including if they needed to take time away. He thinks this could have an impact on peer institutions.

“If they could say, ‘Your kid will be fine,’ then the next time the character visits another school, that’s what they’re going to ask about,” Dugue said. “Other schools are going to want to have an answer.” 

Initially, Dugue worried that Elis for Rachael’s commitment to the cause of reforming mental health at Yale would fade away. After several months of working with them, however, it is the group’s persistence that he has found heartening. 

“I have no plans of giving up until everything is fixed,” Dugue said. 

A full list of Elis for Rachael’s demands is available online

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The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255.

Crisis Text Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak with a trained listener, text HELLO to 741741. It is free, available 24/7 and confidential.

To talk with a counselor from Yale Mental Health and Counseling, schedule a session here. On-call counselors are available at any time: call (203) 432-0290. 

Students who are interested in taking a medical withdrawal should reach out to their residential college dean.

Additional resources are available in a guide compiled by the Yale College Council here.

LUCY HODGMAN
Lucy Hodgman covers Student Life. She previously covered the Yale College Council for the News. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, she is a sophomore in Grace Hopper majoring in English.