During the 2019 fall semester, James Brandfonbrener ‘21 made the difficult decision to medically withdraw from the university in order to focus on his mental health. For students on withdrawal, Section J of Yale’s academic regulations forbids them from stepping foot on campus. According to the policy, “students who have been withdrawn,” even for medical reasons, “may not stay in residences on campus, attend classes, participate in organized extracurricular activities, or make use of University library, athletic, and other facilities.” These facilities include Yale Mental Health resources. Withdrawn students must apply for readmission and meet vague requirements during their leave from campus, including having been “constructively occupied and to have maintained a satisfactory standard of conduct.” Readmission is not guaranteed.
Despite having the economic means for and access to psychiatric treatment at home in New York, Brandfonbrener felt as if he was being “punished with isolation” for withdrawing and longed for his on-campus community and family.
“It would have been better to have stayed in an environment where I could be supported by friends,” said Brandfonbrenner. “Self blame is already a huge part of mental illness, and it felt like [Yale] was fanning the flames.”
Until recently, Stanford University had a similar policy, prohibiting students on medical withdrawal from returning to campus. However, beginning in the 2020 winter quarter, Stanford students on medical withdrawal are able to petition the university to continue living on campus. For students on medical withdrawal due to mental illness, this change allows them to continue to seek mental health support from their school and be supported by the on-campus community.
In order to better accommodate mental illness, it is vital that Yale makes the same revision to its medical withdrawal policy. For some students, leaving campus only worsens mental illness. In 2015, Luchang Wang, a mathematics major and sophomore at Yale, posted a worrying Facebook status, announcing she had to medically withdraw from the university due to mental illness and leave campus.
“I loved being here,” wrote Wang, “I only wish I could’ve had some time. I needed time to work things out and to wait for new medication to kick in, but I couldn’t do it in school, and I couldn’t bear the thought of having to leave for a full year, or of leaving and never being readmitted. Love, Luchang.”
Hours later, after having bought a one-way plane ticket and flown to San Francisco, Wang plummeted 220 feet into the freezing water beneath the Golden Gate Bridge.
If Wang had been allowed to petition Yale to continue living on campus and had been treated as a human being rather than a liability, she may still be alive today. Since Wang’s death, Yale has failed to rethink its mental health policies and, tragically, has experienced four additional suicides.
However, medical withdrawal is not just an issue at Yale. In 2018, the Ruderman Family Foundation—which advocates for persons with disabilities, including mental illness—issued a report grading the Ivy League schools on their mental health policies. Yale finished last, receiving a grade of “F” while the Ivy League performed poorly overall. UPenn earned the highest grade: a “D+.” According to the report, policies of involuntary leave, minimum leave time, and un-guaranteed readmission across the Ivy League campuses placed a burden on students who should be focusing on healing and recovery during their time away from campus. Furthermore, the report attested that Ivy League students expressed a fear of reaching out for help because they worried about leaving campus, just like Wang.
In particular, the Foundation criticized many of the Ivy League schools’ lack of accommodations for students on medical withdrawal, writing, “There should not be blanket policies prohibiting students on leave from visiting campus, so that students can be supported and encouraged to maintain their social connectedness while taking time away from academic demands…Only then,” the report continued, “will they live up to their reputation of leadership.”
As I sit in the bay window of my Yale suite overlooking the late-night traffic of Lock Street, I can’t help but think of the struggle Brandfonbrener and Wang went through before making the decision to take a medical withdrawal. My seat provides a clear view of the twinkling light emanating from the windows of the Yale Health Center. I, myself, struggle with depression and anxiety. It was not until my first-year spring that I approached Yale Mental Health & Counseling to seek treatment. I am so thankful that I did not need to take a medical withdrawal and leave campus.
This article is not meant to bash Yale’s mental health services. The psychiatrists and resources at Yale Mental Mental Health & Counseling have been important in my road to improving my mental wellbeing. Rather, I mean to call out an unjust policy and ask for change. Not all medical withdrawal cases are the same, so a blanket policy that universally prohibits return to campus is not only unproductive but also dangerous. Yes, there are cases where students with mental illness pose a danger to others and should not be allowed on campus. However, petition-based systems such as Stanford’s still protect against such scenarios.
If Stanford’s policy was in place at Yale, students who do not have a functional home with available mental health resources could petition to stay on campus. There, students would continue to be supported by the Yale community and follow a treatment plan at Yale Health.
From students’ first steps on campus during Bulldog Days to their commencement, the words “Yale is a family and a community” ring in our ears louder than the bells of Harkness Tower on an early Sunday morning. We, as a family, have a social responsibility and covenant to take care of one another. Our policies should reflect that sentiment.