In early October 2021, Yale School of Medicine (YSM) announced the launch of a pilot Student Mental Health & Wellness Program for its MD, MD-PhD, Physician Associate, and Physician Assistant Online students.
In their communication to students about the initiative, then Associate Dean of Student Affairs Nancy Angoff, MD, MPH, MEd, Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs Sam Ball, PhD, and Deputy Dean for Education Jessica Illuzzi, MD, MS, expressed their appreciation to the many students who, since 2015, “passionately and effectively advocated for improved access to high quality mental health care for YSM students, making it clear how critical such access is.”
Angoff credits YSM students with their commitment to each other and to their own well-being and for working hard to get this program up and going—as well as YSM Dean Nancy J. Brown, MD, and Ball with making the pilot happen. Angoff adds, “Our students know that to care well for their patients, they must first take care of themselves. We are so fortunate to have this program starting.”
The pilot program offers short-term individual therapy—including consultation and counseling—in a clinical or wellness setting. Mental health professionals are embedded in YSM to provide students with mild-to-moderate symptoms or acute adjustment issues (e.g., role stress, grief, relationship changes), with more immediate access to mental health care, while working in conjunction with Yale Health. The program allows for up to four individual therapy sessions and then will assist students with the transition to ongoing care through Yale Health or Magellan. The program builds upon efforts in other parts of the University, including the Law School and Yale College.
The first member of the Student Mental Health & Wellness Program is Program Manager Lisa Ho, LCSW. Ho brings over eight years of experience working alongside families and individuals of color, and specializes in treating anxiety, depression, and OCD. She enjoys engaging with youth and young adults and helping them learn skills to better manage their lives both individually and in groups. “I am excited to begin this new program and provide support to students as they manage the thrills and stress of being a student and human in this ever-changing world,” Ho says. “I encourage students to reach out, even if they just want to learn more about the program, which is here to support them.”
By year’s end, YSM hopes to hire two additional part-time staff for the program— a psychologist and a wellness counselor. Located at 2 Church Street South in New Haven, the program’s location—off-campus, but nearby—was chosen to balance student confidentiality with convenience. (Students must live in one of the states, including Connecticut, where the social worker and psychiatrist are licensed, in order to engage in individual therapy sessions.)
While students who have experienced prior mental health treatment involving medications or ongoing therapy, or who need crisis treatment, have been counseled to call Yale Health directly to establish ongoing care, the new program will provide a critical new resource for many YSM students.
An important part of the pilot is developing wellness programming. When hired, the wellness counselor will work with students and student groups to address needs related to time and stress management, coping skills, well-being, resilience, and self-care, and will facilitate groups and wellness seminars around topics of interest to students.
For the past two years, the Student Mental Health Working Group—formed by students on the Committee on Diversity, Inclusion & Social Justice (CDISJ) and the Committee on Well-being of Students—has been partnering with Medical Education leadership with the shared goal of creating integrated and accessible mental health resources for YSM students. Brown has been committed to supporting this collaborative effort since becoming dean in February 2020.
Ball emphasizes that “students pushed the system to improve and provide better access to high quality mental health resources.” Reflecting on a generational change, Ball says students now, importantly, are more open about their need for mental health resources. The impacts of systemic racism and the COVID-19 pandemic increased student mental health needs, “making it even more critical to launch the pilot,” according to Ball.
Ball also cites the importance of people working across what are often siloed parts of the university to address student mental health needs, noting that Yale Health and the Provost’s Office also have collaborated to operationalize the pilot—with YSM funding the effort.
“This program is born from sustained student advocacy and a pressing need for accessible clinical mental health care, especially for but certainly not limited to LGBTQ+ students, neurodivergent students, and Black and Indigenous students of color. We are hoping that the program will leverage its new resources and location to connect our diverse student body to timely mental health care,” states the Student Mental Health Working Group.
The student working group emphasizes its desire for the program to provide clear information so that accessing mental health care is simplified, and for the program to collaborate with student groups to create wellness programming specific to student needs, especially groups such as OutPatient, Student National Medical Association/Latino Medical Student Association, Yale Native American Health Professions, Asian Pacific American Medical Student Association /South Asian Medically-oriented Students Association, Yale First Generation/Low Income, CDISJ, and the Committee for the Wellbeing of Students, to support the mental health of LGBTQ+ students, first-generation students, and students of color. The student working group emphasizes that wellness programming is “a supplement to the program’s primary aim, as the most important wellness activity is timely mental health care.”