Peers To Advise on Mental Health

New mental health liaisons and mentors to aid student body

Students plan to launch a new program next semester aimed at encouraging discussion of student mental health issues, a subject which has long been considered “taboo” on campus.

The Harvard-Radcliffe Mental Health Advocacy and Awareness Group (MHAAG) announced on Jan. 5 its creation of two new resources that will be available to undergraduates: mental health liaisons and mental health mentors.

The announcement comes after recent attention to the need for increased mental health resources.

A 2004 Crimson investigation found that the College was facing “a pervasive mental health crisis” at the time—80 percent of students reported feeling depressed at least once over the course of the year and 10 percent had seriously considered suicide.

University Provost Steven E. Hyman told The Crimson at the time that the need for new mental health resources stemmed from higher student demand for help.

In hopes of increasing peer involvement in addressing mental health concerns, student mental health liaisons will be assigned to each House, and mental health mentors—students who feel comfortable speaking about their own mental health issues—will meet with peers one-on-one.

According to Courtney M. Peterson, a Lowell House wellness tutor, peer involvement will be beneficial to the student body.

“Many students, I think, are reluctant to speak about these issues with school administrators or others with even slightly more authority over them,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I think that MHAAG has the potential to fill a really important niche role that is not currently being filled.”

MHAAG Treasurer Susan I. Putnins ’08 explained that she hopes these new positions will make the presence of mental health services more conspicuous.

“The Liaison’s purpose is to be a non-anonymous, visible resource for mental health questions within Houses,” she wrote in an e-mail.

MHAAG plans to train recruited liaisons—sophomores, juniors and seniors—through the beginning of the semester, allowing the program to start in Houses later in the term. A program for freshman dorms is still in the works, according to Putnins.

Students from all classes who are willing to share their own mental health experiences can apply to be Mental Health Mentors. The program is intended to foster a continuing relationship between volunteer and participant beginning in the early weeks of the upcoming semester.

“The Mental Health Mentor program was suggested by someone who wished students had someone to talk to who... could share their experiences with each other,” Putnins wrote.

Putnins added that MHAAG’s motivation to launch the new mental health programs stemmed from student need for more open discourse on this seldom-discussed topic.

“We realized that mental health education was lacking on campus in terms of freshman orientation and continuing health education for the upperclassmen,” Putnins wrote. “We felt that these programs would encourage discussion of student mental health, a topic that is unfortunately taboo on this campus.”

—Staff writer Aditi Balakrishna can be reached at balakris@fas.harvard.edu.