The Yale Daily News

Yale announced sweeping changes to their leave of absence policies this week. But to the plaintiffs charging Yale with discriminating against students with mental illnesses, these policy shifts may not be enough. 

Yale’s leave of absence policies, particularly those pertaining to students taking time off due to mental health concerns, have been a historic point of concern that recently came to a head in an ongoing class-action lawsuit. In response to this scrutiny, the University announced on Wednesday broad changes to their leave policies. These changes include re-classifying medical withdrawal as a medical leave of absence and ushering in new benefits for students on such leaves, such as access to healthcare coverage through the University. 

However, as plaintiffs — a group consisting of current students as well as the mental health advocacy group Elis for Rachel — concluded their second meeting with University representatives on Thursday as a part of settlement negotiations, they remained concerned that these changes were not sufficient. 

“These policies are a step in the right direction, but this case raises concerns that have yet to be addressed,” members of Elis for Rachael wrote in a group statement. “We remain in negotiations. We thank Yale for this first step, but if Yale were to receive a grade for its work on mental health, it would be an incomplete at best.”

The lawsuit, filed back in November, alleges that Yale violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Housing Act and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in their treatment of students with mental health issues. The plaintiffs argued that the impact of Yale’s policies is “harshest on students with mental health disabilities from less privileged backgrounds, including students of color, students from poor families or rural areas, and international students.” 

A number of the concerns raised in the suit were addressed in the Wednesday policy changes, but many of the allegedly discriminatory policies remain in place. 

The lawsuit highlighted students’ inability to take reduced courseloads, unfair academic penalties for students who return from mental health leaves and the prohibition of students on medical leave from visiting campus or taking summer classes. Plaintiffs also pointed out that students who take time off for mental health reasons could lose their health insurance if they were on Yale Health’s insurance prior to leaving campus. 

Furthermore, the suit alleges that the reinstatement process for a student on leave aiming to return is “daunting,” citing the fact that students, prior to the changes on Wednesday, were required to prove that they were “constructively occupied” during their leave. 

Many of these concerns were resolved in Wednesday’s announcement. 

The recent changes not only remove numerous requirements for reinstatement, but also allow students on leave for mental health reasons to visit campus, take summer courses, participate in extracurricular activities, retain health insurance through Yale and use certain campus resources including University libraries and Office of Career Strategy. 

Additionally, the recent changes remove any minimum time for taking a medical leave of absence, and also provide avenues for students to take a reduced course load of two courses in the case of extreme medical crises. In such situations, the new policies also allow students to be granted a tenth semester to complete their degrees, an increase from the prior limit of nine. Students on financial aid who take the tenth semester would continue to receive financial aid. 

Another point raised in the lawsuit is the fact that students who take leave for mental health reasons are not given a rebate for tuition. However, Dean of Yale College Pericles Lewis told the News that this is only true for students who do not have tuition insurance. Those who have the insurance receive an 80 percent refund if they take leave, and students without tuition insurance can now get support through Yale’s “emergency funds.” 

However, not all concerns in the lawsuit were addressed. 

Alicia Abramson ’24, one of the two student plaintiffs in the case, wrote that the recently announced policy is an “incomplete step” in terms of the changes needed to protect students’ well-being. 

“Settlement discussions are still ongoing, and more needs to be done before Yale’s policies and practices will meet students’ needs and abide by the law,” Abramson wrote to the News. “That’s why the lawsuit was filed, and that is why we continue to fight for change. Students deserve nothing less.”

The suit also criticized Yale’s practice of requiring students taking a reduced course load to pay full tuition. Lewis wrote to the News that those who move down to two courses due to a medical crisis would not receive any refund of tuition under the new policy. 

One of the central concerns of the lawsuit — the practice of placing students on leave without their consent — was not only maintained but in fact codified in the recent policy changes. The lawsuit specifically criticizes how involuntary leave occurs often “quickly and with little notice” and does not consider whether the leave will cause further harm. 

The lawsuit also questioned whether students will be able to acquire sufficient academic accommodations through Student Accessibility Services, referencing the current inability of students to attend class virtually, which has yet to be altered since the suit. 

Now, after the second settlement meeting between plaintiffs and the University on Thursday, the legal team looks to continue discussing these concerns. 

“The parties remain engaged in ongoing settlement discussions,” the plaintiff’s legal team wrote in a statement to the News. “The new policy that Yale is rolling out in the midst of those discussions is a step, but numerous issues remain to be addressed. We are hopeful for productive conversations.”

Peyton Meyer ’24, one of the co-directors of Yale Student Mental Health Association, told the News that he was “really happy” with the recent changes and described the changes as a “huge step in the right direction.”

“It is also important to note that this is in no way the end, and more can and should always be done to support Yale students’ health,” Meyer told the News. “Addressing medical leaves of absence and the reinstatement process are only part of improving student mental health support, and I think continued improvements to and expansions of mental health resources are still needed and shouldn’t be overshadowed.”

The lawsuit was filed on Nov. 30.  

Sarah Cook is one of the University editors. She previously covered student policy and affairs, along with President Salovey's cabinet. From Nashville, Tennessee, she is a junior in Grace Hopper majoring in Neuroscience.