Mental Health Awareness

Recent depression outreach showed importance of student input and depth of the problem

Many Harvard students often feel overwhelmed, but symptoms such as diminished interest in activities, chronic fatigue and unintended weight loss or gain could mean more than the typical midterm doldrums—they could mean clinical depression. Depression and other mental illnesses are common problems at Harvard, and the first step to treating these health concerns requires greater understanding and awareness of the serious issues involved.

Two weeks ago, 202 students took that step, receiving a screening for depression. The annual screening, previously held in the mental health wing of University Health Services (UHS), took place in Loker Commons this year, providing an easy outlet for concerned undergraduates. The Mental Health Advocacy and Awareness Group (MHAAG), a Harvard student group, played a large role in organising the event. According to MHAAG, the students filled out questionnaires that help identify signs of depression, anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder. After the responses were scored, students were given short consultations with UHS mental health staff members and 64 were referred for further treatment.

According to a UHS survey conducted during the 2001-2002 academic year, 9.5 percent of students reported having been clinically diagnosed with depression, 40.1 percent reported that at least once during the year they felt so depressed that it was difficult to function, 7.8 percent reported that they seriously considered committing suicide and approximately 1.1 percent—about nine students of the 930 who responded—reported attempting suicide in the previous year. Richard D. Kadison, director of UHS Mental Health Services, said that Harvard’s numbers are consistent with national trends, but that they remain “very scary data.”

Kadison also noted that many students dismiss the common symptoms related to the illness. “When students aren’t sleeping, or they are feeling negative, they don’t think of these as signs of depression,” Kadison said. Greater outreach, like the MHAAG screening in Loker Commons, will continue to help students identify these symptoms in themselves and others and direct them to the appropriate University resources for treatment. Loker’s accessibility succeeded in attracting greater numbers than in the past; bringing mental health education to students is much more effective than trying to get students to seek help or information on their own. More depression screenings—held in different locations, such as the upperclass Houses—would likely encourage more students to take time out of their hectic schedules to address their mental health.

Harvard students best understand how to get their peers focused on mental health, and MHAAG’s intelligent planning of this outreach shows that student input will be highly valuable on the mental health task force Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 has recently created. The task force should guarantee that both the Bureau of Study Counsel and UHS Mental Health Services have the necessary resources to meet student needs and that their respective counseling responsibilities are more clearly defined and differentiated.

According to Kadison, UHS has sufficient resources to provide two to four months of care, either at once or spread apart, for each student with mental health concerns. But the University needs to ensure that all students can receive the full treatment they need, even as the number of students concerned about their mental health continues to rise.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, and research has shown that 90 percent of students who take their own lives have a diagnosable mental illness, usually depression. In Harvard’s high-stress environment, the University community must be acutely aware of the signs of depression and help those students to seek treatment; proper diagnosis and treatment of depression and other mental illnesses can make students happier and save lives.