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At Yale, a Surge of Activism Forced Changes in Mental Health Policies

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In the weeks after Rachael Shaw-Rosenbaum, a first-year student at Yale, died by suicide in 2021, a group of strangers began convening on Zoom.

Some of them knew Ms. Shaw-Rosenbaum. But many only knew what she had been going through, as she struggled with suicidal thoughts and weighed the consequences of checking herself into the hospital.

One, a physician in her early 40s, had been told years ago to withdraw from Yale while she was hospitalized after a suicide attempt, an experience she recalls as chillingly impersonal, “like you’re being processed through this big machine.”

Another, a classical pianist in his 20s, withdrew from Yale amid episodes of hypomania and depression, feeling, as he put it, “not just excluded but rejected and cut off and forgotten about.”

After Ms. Shaw-Rosenbaum’s death, Yale officials took the unusual step of releasing a statement denying an allegation, circulating on social media, that Yale had refused her request to take a leave.

Undergraduate activists began demanding changes to the leave policy, as they had after previous suicides, but there was little response from Yale. “At the end of the day, we recognized we were at the mercy of the institution,” said Miriam Kopyto, who was then a leader in the Yale Student Mental Health Association.

A shift came with the involvement of alumni, who convened their first Zoom meeting just a few days after Ms. Shaw-Rosenbaum’s death. About two dozen people attended, including Mr. Dugue, and all felt some personal connection to the cause, said Lily Colby, a community organizer.

They held a moment of silence, shared pictures of Ms. Shaw-Rosenbaum and told their own stories. “We have been impacted in some way,” Ms. Colby said later, describing the core group. “We’ve had a loss or a tragedy.”

Students had tended to ask the university for accommodations on the grounds that it was the right thing to do, Ms. Colby said. The alumni began educating them on what they could demand under law — like a change to the leave policies.

For student activists, this was a fundamental shift. “Some of it is a favor,” Ms. Kopyto said. “And some of it is not.”

“I just kept thinking, if only I had gotten sick a year later,” she said.

She was a second-semester sophomore, juggling coursework in molecular biology and biochemistry and global affairs, when she stopped sleeping for 40-hour stretches. Her hands shook so violently that she dropped things. She began hallucinating.

Diagnosed with a sleep disorder, she initiated a medical withdrawal in December 2021. She had studied the policies, but was still jolted by the reality: She was given 72 hours to vacate her dormitory and surrender her key card.

“It really is like losing your house, your job and your family, all at the same time,” she said. She drained her savings, she said, spending $15,000 on rent, food and tuition for summer school classes before applying for reinstatement by submitting an essay, grades and letters of recommendation.

Ms. Kim, who will graduate next May, hopes mental health leaves will be seen differently now. This weekend, she began recruiting undergraduates to serve as “time away mentors” who help others navigate the process of taking leaves and returning to campus. She hopes that the university will provide funding.

“I think that Yale does want to move in the right direction,” she said. “It’s a matter of accumulating those voices for change until it reaches the threshold point where Yale says this is probably for the benefit of the greater student body.”

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