At a candlelight vigil on Saturday evening, mental health advocacy group Elis for Rachael came together to share their own experiences with mental health issues and their commitment to the cause of suicide prevention.
Courtesy of Lily Colby
Content Warning: This article contains references to suicide.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a helpline for people in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified auditor, call 1-800-273-8255.
Crisis Text Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak to a qualified auditor, text HELLO to 741741. It’s free, available 24/7 and confidential.
To speak with a counselor from Yale Mental Health and Counseling, schedule a session here. On-call advisors are available anytime: call (203) 432-0290.
Additional resources are available in a guide compiled by the Yale College Council here.
Members of the Yale community gathered on the New Haven Green Saturday night for a candlelight vigil for suicide prevention, organized by the mental health advocacy group Elis for Rachael.
Attendees stood on the Green holding candles in memory of suicide victims, including Rachael Shaw-Rosenbaum ’24. When the wind caused some participants’ candles to flicker, other participants silently relight them using their own flames.
It is this spirit of compassion that Elis for Rachael hopes to foster at Yale, both administratively and among the student body. The organization, which formed in the weeks after Shaw-Rosenbaum passed away last spring, is made up of former students, current students and some people who knew Shaw-Rosenbaum.
“I want to do everything we can to support suicide prevention,” Shaw-Rosenbaum’s mother, Pamela Shaw, told The News. “I hope the effort…helps prevent future suicides or self-harm and encourages people to seek mental health within the Yale community and beyond.”
Organizers had thought about holding a suicide prevention vigil for months. Elis for Rachael member Paul Johansen ’88 told The News that the group originally considered holding a vigil in September 2021, but plans for Saturday’s event began to take shape after Elis for Rachael was invited to attend the Mind Over Matter mental health fair hosted by the Yale Student Mental Health Association earlier today.
When the organization’s geographically distant members realized that many of them would be on the east coast at the time of the Yale Student Mental Health Association fair, Johansen said it seemed like “a sign” that the group should hold the vigil at in conjunction with the event.
Organizers originally planned to hold the vigil on Cross Campus, Johansen told the News, with screenings on Sterling Library. The group moved to the Green after the University asked them not to use Cross Campus, in part because non-student groups are not allowed to hold events on Cross Campus.
Shaw and other members of Elis for Rachael spoke at the vigil. During the first hour and a half of the event, speakers shared stories about their own experiences with mental health issues and their commitment to the cause of suicide prevention. Johansen noted that this first part of the vigil was meant to introduce former students who struggled with mental health issues but “made it through. [it].”
Alicia Floyd ’05 spoke at the vigil, noting at the start of her speech that she hadn’t originally planned to attend but “just couldn’t stay at the gap” and flew from Minnesota to the event.
“I know you don’t know me – I graduated from Yale 20 years ago – but there is a group of alumni who have gone through tough experiences and come out the other side,” he said. said Floyd. “I really care about you and I want you to be kinder to yourself than I was to myself when I was 19, 20 or 21.”
This sense of solidarity and compassion for current Yale students, Floyd said, is widely felt among alumni of the university.
Throughout the speeches, there was also an emphasis on prioritizing mental health despite the competitive culture present at universities like Yale.
“I hope you all do the hard part,” Zack Dugue, who was Shaw-Rosenbaum’s boyfriend, said at the vigil. “The hardest thing. It’s not the late nights. It’s not the course. It’s putting yourself first, in a place that tells you your goals…your grades, this internship, is the only thing that matters. It’s hard. It takes patience and giving yourself time to heal when you’re in pain. It takes a willingness to accept failures and not see them as the end.
In addition to the vigil held this week, Elis for Rachael has been actively working to bring about change at Yale throughout the past year. The group released a petition in November 2021, listing a set of six specific demands. Organizers urgently called on the University to relax requirements for reinstatement at Yale College following medical withdrawals and to provide an affordable preferred provider organization option for college health insurance, allowing enrolled and withdrawn students for medical reasons to seek mental health care from providers outside the University.
The group isn’t just focused on advocating for changes in University policy – Elis for Rachael surveyed alumni and current students about their experiences with mental health care at Yale and directly supported students with the financial and logistical burdens associated with the withdrawal and reintegration process. They are also currently preparing a report on the factors that contribute to student mental health problems and the best potential solutions.
And throughout, the band has worked to honor Shaw-Rosenbaum’s memory. In Shaw’s speech, the last of the evening, she focused on the impact Rachael’s passing has had on her over the past year, as well as her own journey with mental health.
Shaw said even now it’s hard to be vulnerable and open about difficulties. But, citing the work of New York Times bestselling author and University of Houston research professor Brené Brown, Shaw also came to believe that “vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage.”
At the end of the evening, members of Elis for Rachael distributed and lit candles, and vigil attendees observed a moment of silence as they listened to “After All” from Dar Williams’ 2000 album The GreenWorld.