Yale announces “momentous” changes to leave of absence policies amid ongoing mental health lawsuit
Yale has renamed “medical withdrawal” to “medical leave of absence” and announced policy changes affecting students who take a medical leave of absence and students who face medical emergencies during the semester.
Yale Daily News
Over a month ago, mental health advocates and current students filed a lawsuit — which has since moved to settlement discussions — alleging that Yale’s policies discriminate against students facing mental health issues, especially those who take time off.
In the midst of conferences between the University and the plaintiffs, who are set to have a second meeting Thursday, Dean of Yale College Pericles Lewis announced on Wednesday a slate of changes addressing numerous issues that have been persistently raised by mental health advocates. These include the reclassification of medical withdrawals as medical leaves of absence, as well as relaxed reinstatement requirements for students who take time away from school for their physical or mental health.
“Part of the purpose of these revisions is to give students the sense — and the reality — that, if they choose to spend time at home, that will not be a problem for them to come back and also that if they stay on campus, we’re supporting them as much as we can,” Lewis said.
Yale’s withdrawal and reinstatement policies have long been a source of student ire, especially as criticism of University mental health care policies has come to a fever pitch in the last two years. The University made some amendments to the reinstatement policy in April 2022, removing the coursework and interview requirements that students had previously been required to fulfill for readmission to Yale. Before that, the last major overhaul was in 2016, when the name of the process was changed to “reinstatement” from “readmission.”
Director of Yale Mental Health and Counseling Paul Hoffman told the News that the new policies for leave represent “real significant change.” Hoffman specifically pointed to students’ ability to now remain on Yale’s insurance when on leave for mental health issues as a “critical” part of these changes.
“I see this as being a fairly momentous change, a monumental change, in the leave of absence policy,” Hoffman said. “I really hope it helps students to take care of themselves and not feel like they are getting caught between a lot of arcane rules.”
While many of the changes represent a victory for campus mental health advocates, Tuesday’s development also codifies the University’s ability to require students to take involuntary leaves of absence — a primary concern addressed in the lawsuit.
The policy states that Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd can require a student to take an involuntary leave of absence if she concludes that there is a significant risk to the student’s health and safety or to the health and safety of others and that no available accommodations can “adequately reduce the risk or disruption.”
This evaluation will also include consultation with Hoffman or the Chief of Student Health. If a student is placed on involuntary leave, they will have seven days from the notification to appeal to the Dean of Yale College.
Medical withdrawal now classified as medical leave of absence, ushering in new benefits for students
Previously, students who wanted to take time off after the 15th day of the semester for any medical reasons, including mental health, underwent a process known as “medical withdrawal.” Students on medical withdrawal lost access to many of Yale’s resources and opportunities, including Yale Health insurance coverage. Leave of absences, on the other hand — which students of “good academic standing” can decide to take before the 15th day of the semester for up to four semesters total — allows students to retain health insurance through Yale, visit campus and take summer classes.
Per Tuesday’s changes, medical withdrawal is now classified as “medical leave of absence,” and now comes with many of the benefits previously exclusive to leaves of absence. These benefits include healthcare coverage through Yale Undergraduate Affiliate Coverage, opportunities to work student jobs and access to other resources including the Office of Career Strategy and Yale’s libraries. According to Boyd, these new benefits would not be possible without the change in classification.
With medical withdrawal removed as an option, there remain three types of withdrawal: financial, academic and personal.
Hoffman explained that while the new classification may seem like a simple terminology change, it is a “bigger shift” that allows for insurance coverage to be expanded to students on leave.
Now, students can switch to Yale’s affiliate care within 30 days after they declare they are to be on leave, with financial aid support to cover healthcare costs for students receiving the “highest level” of financial aid. Students who move out of state cannot continue seeing therapists through Mental Health and Counseling given that the therapists at MHC are only licensed in Connecticut, but they can still utilize the Yale Undergraduate Affiliate Coverage, which would cover out-of-network care.
Hoffman said this change is “critical,” especially for students who previously would not have had healthcare once they left for mental health reasons.
“If students are in limbo and don’t have health insurance when they go home, it makes it very hard for them to hit the ground running and immediately get the care that they might need because they may be in a fairly acute crisis,” Hoffman said.
The benefits also include the ability for students to participate in limited extracurricular activities, visit campus and take summer classes. The limited involvement, Boyd clarified, precludes students on medical leave from holding officer positions in extracurricular organizations or traveling internationally as a member of one.
“A lot of students had a sense of in some ways being cut off from Yale,” Hoffman said. “I think this policy allows the ability to stay connected to Yale while taking time off, which I think is really important, because for many students that it may be better to, to really kind of take a step back, you know, from Yale and really get some distance, but that’s not every student.”
When students now take a medical leave of absence, Lewis told the News that they will be given an “individualized recommendation” for how long it may be appropriate to stay away to handle a student’s medical needs. This decision, Hoffman said, would be made with input from the student, their clinicians and either him or the Chief of Student Health, depending on the medical issue.
Lewis’ Wednesday announcement to undergraduate students also announces that the limits on how long students can take off from classes for medical reasons have been removed, along with a few of the requirements for reinstatement as a student once a student is ready to come back.
On top of these changes, Lewis told the News that students of high financial need who take a medical leave of absence and do not have tuition insurance — which would guarantee an 80 percent tuition refund if a student takes medical leave — can now get support through Yale’s “emergency funds.”
Boyd explained that while this aid is not a written policy change, it is a part of an effort to ensure students are supported.
“There are a number of things that are not in the policies, but when students have really acute needs, we find ways to meet those needs,” Boyd said.
Reinstatement process further simplified
The reinstatement process of students coming back to campus from a leave of absence — which was amended in April to remove requirements for coursework and an interview — has been further simplified with the elimination of the requirements for students to be “constructively occupied” during their time away and submit letters of reference.
Boyd told the News that the change in April to remove coursework requirements was “very urgent,” and eliminating the requirement for an interview with the chair of the reinstatement committee seemed “very easy,” so these changes were just the first two implemented within a “line by line” look at the policies for leave.
In addition, students who are reinstated no longer need to pass every class and will now be allowed to withdraw from courses in the first two semesters after they return.
However, Boyd said that reinstatement still requires a “medical clearance” from either the Chief of Student Health Gordon Streeter or Hoffman, medical documentation from the student’s clinician — which Hoffman says he “leans heavily on” when determining if a student is ready to return — and a short reflection from the student on “how it is they feel ready to come back”.
Boyd emphasized that she is avoiding the language of “applying” for reinstatement to make it to seem less like a “hurdle” and more of a “moment to pause.”
“This language of application just brings up everybody’s experience with the process of applying to Yale and it is just so different,” Boyd told the News. “When someone applies to Yale, the odds are overwhelmingly that they will not be admitted. When someone requests to return from a withdrawal or medical leave of absence the odds are overwhelming that they will be coming back that next semester.”
New accommodations to take reduced course load
The announcement also includes a change that allows students to drop down to two courses if they face significant medical crises in the middle of a semester. According to the new policy, this accommodation applies to medical crises that require “significant time for treatment” which can include participation in an intensive outpatient program.
While most students are expected to take at least four credits, students with permission from their residential college dean could previously take as few as three courses up until the midpoint of the semester and could withdraw from one course, as long as they took extra classes in future semesters or in the summer to obtain the number of credits required for advancing to the next year.
However, Boyd told the News students who drop down to two courses for medical reasons are not counted as “behind,” unlike other students who drop down to two credits after the midterm. These students can therefore continue their coursework without having to take extra classes the next semester or over the summer to reach the benchmark requirements for each class year.
According to Hoffman, determining whether a student facing a mental health crisis should move down to two courses or take a medical leave of absence will involve a discussion of how a student feels they are doing in their classes and what the physical and emotional toll of continuing to be enrolled would be.
“Sometimes people have medical conditions that make it very hard for them to work and to make academic progress,” Hoffman told the News. “Some people have medical conditions that make [life] hard in many ways, but are still doing fine academically.”
Additionally, Hoffman said, the conversation will involve the question of what would be the “best setting for recovery and improving mental health,” as some students may have support at home that could help them recover.
Changes part of a long-term look at leave policies, made faster than normal
Lewis told the News that the policies surrounding mental health leaves were in discussion prior to him taking on the role of Dean this summer, and that the administration is focused on the health of the students.
“Our primary goal is to reduce the obstacle for students getting the care that they need,” Lewis told the News, “This presumably will mean that it’s somewhat easier for a student to make the decision to take a leave if they feel that they need it and also that they know that it’s not a complicated process to come back after such a leave.”
When asked if students were consulted on these changes, Boyd said that she felt they had “enough information” from conversations the residential college deans and Hoffman have with students, along with student feedback. However, Lewis said some of the academic changes were passed by the Committee on Honors and Academic Standing which has student members. Hoffman added that these policies were developed after consulting peer institutions’ leave policies.
“Because we were trying to move this as fast as we could, getting these changes in place for this semester was a whole lot faster than we are normally able to move in substantial policy changes like this,” Boyd told the News.
Students can access the new policies for leave of absence and withdrawal online.