De-Mystify Mental Health

In light of mental health awareness month on campus, this is the first
op-ed in a series on mental health resources at Harvard.

On average, Harvard undergraduates rate their experiences with Harvard’s mental health resources positively (close to 4 on a 5 point scale). But ask a student about his sense of student satisfaction with Harvard’s mental health resources, and this impression quickly disappears. Everyone knows that most students have bad encounters with Harvard’s mental health resources. Because of this negative reputation, Harvard’s mental health resources—rated highly by those who use them—are underutilized to the detriment of many Harvard undergraduates in need.

Harvard offers a plethora of resources, from peer counseling to professional services, tutors to resident deans, but we, the undergraduates, undermine their efforts. Too often, we focus on the negative aspects of Harvard’s mental health system, spreading nightmare stories about clinicians who prescribe medicine in five minutes and forced medical leave for merely mentioning depression. Do any of these urban legends sound familiar to you?

I do not pretend that every contact with Harvard’s mental health resources is perfect, but groundlessly disparaging the resources obscures some important facts: about 40 percent of current undergraduates have used a mental health resource while at Harvard; nearly 1000 students went to Mental Health Services at University Health Services (UHS) in the past year alone; and in a survey of over 900 random students, the average satisfaction rating of experience with mental health resources was significantly positive.

Before congratulating the system too much, consider another group of students. In that same survey (which I distributed as part of my thesis research), in an optional open-ended final question, nearly one-third of respondents mentioned that they needed a mental health resource but did not even try to use one because of its negative reputation.

That means that sharing negative hearsay about Harvard’s mental health resources prevents people who need these resources from accessing them. It is our responsibility as Harvard undergraduates to build a supportive community and take care of community members, and part of this responsibility is to reinforce the good done by Harvard’s resources by encouraging friends to use them when they might help.

Of course, that does not mean that Harvard is completely off the hook. There’s certainly a lot Harvard can and should do to improve its resources. Even though students are responsible for recognizing other students who need help and encouraging them to seek help, it is Harvard’s mental health resources that provide that support.

And the most important focus of mental health services should be their image problem. Given that students using resources already rate them highly, improving the resources’ image would have the single greatest impact on student mental health. Students may ultimately be responsible for perpetuating this negative reputation, but Harvard’s mental health system should take a proactive and aggressive approach to improving its name.

For starters, a few of Harvard’s resources are notably bad at communicating their availability. It does not matter how effective our clinicians are if students do not know how to meet with them. Although over 90 percent of students reported that they knew about Mental Health Services at UHS, the Office of Sexual Assault, Prevention, and Response (OSAPR), and peer counseling, fewer than two-thirds had heard of the Bureau of Study Counsel (BSC). Harvard also needs a website with health and safety information, and contact information posted in every student dorm room for all of its mental health resources—information has to be present when and where students need it.

In addition, Harvard’s mental health resources need to make more personal contact with students. This contact could alleviate some of the possible apprehension about seeking help and would demonstrate the potential helpfulness of using mental health resources for all kinds of situations. Assigning mental health clinicians to freshmen like primary care physicians and requiring a check-in during freshman year could go a long way toward dispelling rumors about what it means to use mental health resources, and make it easier for students to make their first contact. Peer counseling groups should be allowed to present to proctor groups (permitted until the Class of 2007 were freshmen) to describe peer counseling and to give peer counseling groups a chance to explain why people call. Educating tutors about which resources are available and what they’re good for would create a massive team of ambassadors.

But in the end, for all the talk of personable clinicians and the purpose of the tutor system, the real ambassadors are students. When concerned about a friend, we should encourage him or her to talk to someone. And when the topic of Mental Health Services (or Room 13, the BSC, OSAPR, etc.) comes up, we should not just recount the juicy details of what (might have) happened to our roommate’s boyfriend’s teammates’s lab partner. Instead, we might offer that many people (say, eight people in every twenty person section) use them, and most find them helpful.

Judy Z. Herbstman ’07 is a history and science and psychology concentrator in Adams House.