A group of current and former Yale students is suing the Ivy League university over what they say is “systemic discrimination” against students struggling with mental health issues. In a lawsuit filed last week, they say school administrators routinely pressure students to withdraw from Yale rather than accommodating their mental health needs, a practice that disproportionately hurts students of color, those from poor or rural backgrounds and international students. For more, we speak with Alicia Abramson, a current Yale student and one of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, who says she was pushed to withdraw while dealing with an eating disorder, depression and insomnia, which led her to lose her health insurance and most of her tuition. “It certainly felt like Yale was abandoning me when I was in need of the most help,” says Abramson. We also speak with attorney Monica Porter, with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, and Miriam Heyman, a researcher at the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy at Brandeis University.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
A group of current and former students at Yale University have sued the Ivy League school for discriminating against students with mental health challenges in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The lawsuit alleges Yale pressures students to withdraw from the school if they’re suicidal or hospitalized for mental health treatment. Some students who refuse to withdraw are then involuntarily withdrawn.
One plaintiff said authorities at Yale visited her in the hospital after she overdosed on aspirin to urge her to withdraw. When she didn’t, the university involuntarily withdrew her while she was still hospitalized. She was then told she would need a police escort to retrieve her belongings.
The lawsuit alleges Yale has, quote, “treated unequally and failed to accommodate students with mental health disabilities.” The lawsuit goes on to say, quote, “The impact of Yale’s discriminatory 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,” unquote.
In 2018, the Ruderman Family Foundation issued a report on absences and withdrawal policies at Ivy League schools. Yale was awarded an F for its policies. Yale has said its withdrawal policies are now under review.
The lawsuit cites the case of a former student named Nicolette Mantica. In this video, produced by the group Elis for Rachael, Nicolette describes what happened.
NICOLETTE MANTICA: When my condition got to a place in which I really needed to get help, I ended up seeking help through Yale Health, but, after a few months of treatment, was hospitalized and eventually was asked to leave on medical withdrawal. It was really shocking, because I wasn’t really in a life-or-death circumstance. I had very little knowledge beforehand about what decisions were being made on my behalf. And it happened really suddenly. I was told I was going have to leave Yale, I had two hours to pack all my things, and then I was gone. And in my time away from Yale, I was living back home in a rural area in which I didn’t have many resources, and was hospitalized again just six months later. But in transferring to Northwestern University, I found that I could find providers who cared for me as an individual and a university that would support me as a student.
AMY GOODMAN: Those are the words of former Yale University student Nicolette Mantica.
We’re joined now by three guests. Alicia Abramson is with us. She is a current Yale student, one of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the university. She said Yale repeatedly refused to accommodate her mental health struggles related to an eating disorder, depression and insomnia. Miriam Heyman is also with us. She’s senior research associate at the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy at Brandeis University. She authored the 2018 “Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health in the Ivy League,” which is cited in the Yale lawsuit. Monica Porter is an attorney for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, one of the groups representing the Yale plaintiffs.
We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Alicia, let’s begin with you. We’re reaching you in New Haven right now. You’re currently a student. But talk about your journey and what happened you and why you’re suing the university you’re attending.
ALICIA ABRAMSON: Yeah, it’s been a long journey for me. I started at Yale in 2018. And I had been dealing with mental health issues for a while already. But once I got to campus, I struggled to receive accommodations almost right away. I was told by the psychiatrist that I was seeing at Yale that Yale Mental Health has a policy of not helping students get accommodations, because we could be untruthful about our symptoms. And these are the same symptoms he was prescribing me medications for. So, it was definitely a struggle to try to get any sort of accommodation from the university. And I wasn’t able to take a part-time course load because that’s against Yale’s policies.
So, ultimately, I made the choice to withdraw in 2019. And when I did withdraw, it was basically an immediate ban from anything related to Yale, so I couldn’t take courses, I couldn’t participate in activities. I wasn’t even allowed to step foot on campus. And I lost my health insurance. I forfeited most of my tuition. So, it certainly felt like Yale was abandoning me when I was in need of the most help. Then came —
AMY GOODMAN: And how did you come back?
ALICIA ABRAMSON: Yeah, the reinstatement process —
AMY GOODMAN: What was required of you to step foot back on campus and become a student again?
ALICIA ABRAMSON: It was a very arduous process to get back in. There was an application that involved an essay and several letters of recommendation. And I also had to complete two classes at a four-year university. And Yale has since removed that policy. But at the time, it was very expensive and time-consuming. And all of that was meant to assess if I had used my time off productively, which, you know, it felt like I should be using my time off to heal, not be productive. But, yeah, when I came back, I was still struggling to get accommodations. So, it’s definitely been a challenge to get support from this university.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, what’s interesting about you being — losing much of your tuition for that semester and your health insurance is that if you wanted to withdraw, that would be because you felt you needed to for your own mental health. That would be such a deterrent from doing it.
ALICIA ABRAMSON: Yeah, absolutely. And I think a lot of students are deterred for that reason, because they know they’ll get cut off from resources. And I was lucky in that, you know, I could turn to my family for support and for financial help and for help getting treatment. But a lot of students aren’t in that position, and they rely on Yale for insurance, for treatment, for housing, for visas. And so, when Yale cuts them off completely, they have nowhere to turn.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go right now to Monica Porter. She is with the Bazelon Center. The Bazelon Center is representing the students who have sued Yale University, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. Monica Porter, if you can talk about this lawsuit? You have — in this case, you have Alicia, who’s one of the named plaintiffs. Talk about whether this is a class-action suit and what you’re demanding.
MONICA PORTER: Yes, we are seeking for this to be a class-action suit, which would enable us to represent Alicia, the other named plaintiffs, as well as all Yale students who have, or have a record of, a mental health disability and who are being harmed or who fear being harmed by Yale’s policies.
What we’re seeking in this lawsuit is simple, commonsense policy reform. None of the plaintiffs who are a part of this are seeking any form of monetary relief. We are purely seeking improvement in Yale’s policies as they pertain to withdrawals, that requirement that Alicia mentioned about all students having to be full-time and not allowing part-time as an option, as well as policies that enable students to seek and receive the reasonable accommodations that they’re entitled to under federal law.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to another clip about a student at Yale University. This is Alicia Floyd talking about her experience at Yale. She’s now a doctor. It was about 20 years ago.
DR. ALICIA FLOYD: I matriculated in 1998, and I graduated in 2005. And those were not good years. Those were not good years for me. I fell into a deep depression. That culminated in my overdosing. I was hospitalized. Actually, I was hospitalized twice. I had to withdraw from college and apply for readmission and go through that whole process — I think it’s now called reinstatement, but essentially the same.
And if I could go back and talk to 19-year-old me, 19-year-old me who was like sitting on the ground outside of University Health at 2:00 in the morning in the dark crying, just sobbing because I can’t figure out how to open the door and I really want someone to talk to, I think the first thing I would do is just give myself a hug, because it’s hard. It’s hard being at Yale. …
If you’re at Yale right now and you’re struggling and you’re feeling like you can’t keep up and you’re feeling crushed by the weight of a million expectations, just know that you’re not alone. You’re definitely not alone.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s now-Dr. Alicia Floyd. I want to go back to October 2016. Yale student Hale Ross died by suicide. This is Hale’s dad, Jack Ross, who also attended Yale.
JACK ROSS: It’s been quite a journey since I left Yale in 1979. Despite struggles with bipolar depression and alcoholism, that could have killed me, I’m still in the game. I have a great life. But, tragically, my son Hale is no longer in the game. He took his life in October 2016 during his junior year at Yale. It’s something I’ll process for the rest of my life. …
I think he held himself to a nearly unattainable standard of perfection. And, you know, we all know academic and other pressures are a normal part of college life, but what happens is that mental illness can cause those pressures to escalate into a severe loss of mental calibration, if you want to call it that. I know all too well you can totally lose your perspective on yourself and on your connection to the world. So, in the end, I don’t think Hale was able to perceive the vast worth of his life, that far transcended Yale, or see that he could have recovered if he had reached out for help. So we need to talk about mental illness at Yale to boost awareness, reduce stigma and take steps to try to avoid tragedies like Hale’s death.
AMY GOODMAN: So, these videos were created by Elis for Rachael. That’s a mental health advocacy group, Eli for Eli Yale, who founded Yale. Elis for Rachael formed in the wake of Rachael Shaw Rosenbaum’s death by suicide in March of 2021. She was a freshman at Yale.
Democracy Now! reached out to Yale University yesterday. We invited its president, Peter Salovey, on the program. While that request was denied, a spokesperson for Yale, Karen Peart, sent us a statement that read in part, “We recognize how distressing and difficult it is for the student and their loves ones when a student is facing mental health challenges. When we make decisions and set policies, our primary focus is on students’ safety and health, especially when they are most vulnerable. … We have taken steps in recent years to simplify the return to Yale for students on medical withdrawals and to provide additional support for students. We are also working to increase resources to help students. … [W]e have been working on policy changes that are responsive to students’ emotional and financial wellbeing.”
Alicia Abramson, again, you’re one of the named plaintiffs in the suit. Does that satisfy you? Also, if you can talk about the protections that you have as a student at Yale that you did not feel were being respected?
ALICIA ABRAMSON: Yeah, I mean, I think that Yale has made a few changes. You know, they’ve gotten rid of that coursework requirement. They’ve added a couple more counselors. And I think that’s a great start, but it’s certainly not enough. And it’s not even close to the substantial policy changes that actually need to happen.
And I think, in terms of what I experienced, it was denial of those accommodations that I do have protections to and rights to as a student at Yale. It was denial of those accommodations. It was an arduous reinstatement process that only retraumatized me even more. And ultimately, it was the way that Yale treats their disabled students like they’re criminals. They treat us with punishment and discipline. They don’t meet us with resources or support. But, ultimately, like, we’re not criminals. We’re sick, and we need help. But that’s not what Yale has given us.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Miriam Heyman into this conversation, senior research associate at the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy at Brandeis University, who authored the report in 2018, the “Ruderman White Paper on Mental Health in the Ivy League,” which is cited in the Yale lawsuit. If you can talk, Miriam Heyman, about what’s happening at Yale — clearly, they are not alone — and also what the Americans with Disabilities Act has to do with all of this?
MIRIAM HEYMAN: Sure. Yeah, absolutely. So, thank you for having me.
I agree that, unfortunately, Yale is not alone in this. Mental health is a very large challenge on college campuses. Data from before the pandemic showed that across the country about 40% of undergraduates have been so depressed within the past year that it was difficult for them to function. That’s exploded since the pandemic, and that’s higher than the prevalence rates for young adults of similar age groups who are not enrolled in college, for a lot of reasons, but partially because college is stressful.
And meanwhile, colleges across the country — and this is also not specific to Yale — lack the infrastructure to support students’ mental health. On average, across the country on smaller campuses, there’s about one clinician for every 1,000 to 2,000 students. On larger campuses, there’s about one clinician to every 2,000 to 3,500 students. So, colleges are not prepared to meet the mental health needs of their students.
And, unfortunately, they are often resorting to exclusion via the leave of absence, by excluding their students who have mental illness, as opposed to figuring out ways to accommodate them to stay on campus, which the students are entitled to, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act. The policies, as they’re written currently, are often vehicles for exclusion. So, Alicia mentioned that she is prohibited from visiting campus, that students on leave are prohibited from visiting campus. That’s true in a lot of different policies. And from a mental health perspective, for students who are on leaves of absence who live nearby, coming to campus, you know, to have a meal in the cafeteria or to spend a night in the dorms might be essential to their sense of community and social belonging. And unfortunately, through that example and other exclusionary aspects of policies, leaves of absence are worsening students’ well-being instead of improving it.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you, Professor Heyman, about some universities’ policies against so-called community disruption, including help-seeking behaviors. Can you talk about what are examples of what helps students in these terrible times of crisis for them?
MIRIAM HEYMAN: Yeah. So, that’s a really important point. Many schools’ leave of absence policies — and actually Yale’s does not have this in the policy, which is a good thing — but many students — many schools’ leave of absence policies include community disruption as grounds for an involuntary leave. The problem with the term “community disruption” is that it is very vague and can be applied very broadly.
So, what can happen and has happened is that students, for example, who are experiencing thoughts about suicide might tell their roommate or their friends that they’re having these thoughts, and that can be upsetting to roommates and friends, can be construed as community disruption, and students can have a leave of absence imposed on them. The problem is that when students are struggling, we want them to seek help. We want them to tell their friends, professionals at the school, that they need help. That is how they will eventually get better. And when we exclude students for sharing and disclosing that they’re having a hard time, we are detracting from their well-being.
Another example of a community disruption is if a parent, for example, requests that the campus security do a wellness check to make sure that their child in the dorm is OK. That has been construed as community disruption. And we absolutely do not want to discourage parents from checking on their students, if they’re worried.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Monica Porter at the Bazelon Center if you can talk about examples around the country, specifically, where a student was actually supported. And what makes the most difference for students going through these times?
MONICA PORTER: That’s a great question. At the Bazelon Center, we’ve been collecting data at universities across the nation to inform the policy advocacy and suggestions that we are making. Unfortunately, I don’t have an example offhand, but I could say some of the things that schools could be doing to support students: to train faculty and staff on mental health disabilities and that they are protected by federal civil rights laws; that students with mental health disabilities, just as students and people with physical and learning disabilities, are entitled to reasonable accommodations and entitled to equal opportunity to participate in programs and services in the most integrated setting appropriate. Schools should be taking measures to treat all students individually to assess what could be done and how students could be accommodated without resorting to exclusion.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about what happened before COVID, and then through the pandemic, where the issue of mental health in students — young students, college students, graduate students are just experiencing a level of mental health challenges that we haven’t seen before?
MONICA PORTER: Absolutely. Well, as we’ve seen, Dr. Heyman’s report was done prior to the pandemic, so these are issues that have existed for years. During the pandemic, I think, as you say, students experienced heightened levels of stress, and also the nation’s conversation about mental health has shifted. We’re very grateful for the opportunity to discuss it today on your program. And in addition to us talking about it more at the kitchen table and on social media and what have you, the United States Departments of Justice and Education have further taken steps to affirm students’ rights and schools’ responsibilities to protect students, especially in the era of COVID-19.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Alicia Abramson, if you can talk about what it has meant for you to come out so publicly in this way, being a named plaintiff in the lawsuit against your university, and how it’s felt to return to school? What kind of accommodations have actually helped you in dealing with your anorexia, your insomnia, your depression?
ALICIA ABRAMSON: Yeah. Luckily, I was eventually able to get accommodations for my eating disorder. It took a lot of fighting, but I was able to secure those. But Yale has still denied me accommodations for my insomnia, despite the fact that I’ve submitted several letters from medical providers. So that has definitely still been a challenge. But, ultimately, I think, you know, doing this and coming out with my story has been really powerful for me, and hopefully for the other students that have experienced the same thing. Yeah, I’ve received so much support already from students at Yale and at other universities who are struggling and who feel like they’re alone against these very powerful institutions. So, ultimately, I’m just very, very grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to actually do something about it, and hopefully begin to shift the way that we treat mental health on campuses.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Miriam Heyman, is this the — a first-of-a-kind lawsuit? And what are you hoping it will do for not just Ivy League universities but colleges around the country?
MIRIAM HEYMAN: [inaudible] suits pertaining to discrimination against college students with mental illness. But I think what I hope is that because it’s Yale, which is obviously one of the most elite universities, that changes that this lawsuit will bring, not only to Yale but that other schools will be encouraged to follow suit, because, you know, I don’t think that this problem is specific to Yale, but I think that Yale now has an opportunity to make changes and provide an example to the rest of the sector.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dr. Miriam Heyman, we thank you for being with us, Lurie Institute for Disability Policy at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Alicia Abramson, Yale student, named plaintiff in the lawsuit, thanks for joining us from New Haven, and Monica Porter, attorney for the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, one of the organizations representing the Yale plaintiffs.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. You can also reach a crisis counselor by messaging the crisis text line at 741741.
Coming up, we look at the jailscraper versus Chinatown. We look at a fight in Chinatown, New York, against the city’s plan to build the tallest jail in the world. It’s happening now. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Alma” by Tania León, one of the celebrated Sunday night at the Kennedy Center Honors, along with Gladys Knight, Amy Grant, U2 and George Clooney. Tania León is a Cuban-born composer, conductor and educator who helped found the Dance Theatre of Harlem. She instituted the Brooklyn Philharmonic Community Concert Series in 1978.