Panelists Discuss Roomates’ Mental Health

Students with mental health problems need strong support from their roommates, according to panelists who spoke at a discussion in Kirkland House last night.

Two students, a House senior tutor and a psychologist participated in the panel, titled, “When You Want to Help: Talking to Roommates About Their Mental Health.”

Kristin E. Naragon ’03 and Michelle Kuo ’03, who have lived together for the last four years, began the discussion, which was sponsored by Harvard’s Mental Health Awareness and Advocacy Group (MHAAG).

Naragon, who has struggled with clinical depression since her freshman year, said she was grateful for her roommate’s support.

“She wasn’t blaming me for this; she didn’t think I was weird,” she said. “The most important thing is to constantly show that you care.”

Her roommate shared this sentiment.

“I was grateful that I could help, to be there and listen,” Kuo said.

However, both roommates acknowledged the more complicated and painful parts of dealing with mental health in a friendship.

“I had a constant sense of guilt that I wasn’t being good enough,” Kuo said.

Kuo discussed the challenges of trying balance emotional support with her academic workload.

“I was burned out from schoolwork and from helping her,” she said, “During one really bad week, I would make excuses...come back late, hoping she’d be asleep,” she said

But despite the difficulties, Kuo advised the audience to continue to be supportive of roommates with mental health problems, while also realizing that “there isn’t some magical thing you can say to make [mental health problems] go away.”

Though roommates sometimes feel frustrated by their inability to solve problems, Naragon said continued friendship is the most important form of support.

“Keep in mind it’s not about you, something larger is going on,” she said.

Winthrop House Senior Tutor Courtney B. Lamberth and Bureau of Study Council psychologist M. Suzanne Renna also spoke at the event, urging student supporters of friends with mental health problems to take care of themselves, as well.

“[You can] get counseling yourself,” said Lamberth. “It is tremendously difficult to support someone.”

Renna urged friends or roommates to recognize their own limits.

“Don’t try to be in control of things you can’t be in control of,” she said.

They also recommended ways for friends to approach someone they suspect may be suffering from mental health problems.

“Ask out of sympathy and curiosity,” said Renna, to avoid putting them on the defensive.

A possible approach, she said, would be to say, “I’m concerned about you, and I don’t know what to do.”

Lamberth suggested seeking support from others.

“Talk to someone in the community about what you’re worried about,” she said. “It’s important to not be alone with your worries.”

Both also suggested using resources such as the Bureau of Study Counsel and University Health Services.

Panelists and audience members alike recognized the prevalence of mental health issues at Harvard.

“The pressure of being here, of grades and performance, are intimately linked,” said Lamberth.

And the experience of failure, she said, is something “that continues to be a haunting fear and can lead to tremendous depression.”

However, Lamberth said discussions about mental health have become more common at Harvard.

Students attending the panel said they were glad to have the opportunity to talk about mental health issues openly.

“I thought it was good to hear things that people don’t normally discuss,” said A. Eleanor Luey ’03.

“These are things that a lot of people feel,” said Andrew L. Kalloch, ‘06. “The more people come together and talk about these things, the better the treatment will be.”

The event was sponsored by MHAAG in conjunction with Caring For the Harvard Community, a University-wide program promoting wellness.

MHAAG leaders said they hoped the event would help others at Harvard better understand their group’s purpose.

“We didn’t want to be a group only about people who have mental illness, but a group that helps people who do,” said Caitlin E. Stork, ’04, director of the group.