Carrie Fisher, better known to the metal-bikini enthusiasts among us as Princess Leia of Star Wars fame, writes in her recent memoir “Wishful Drinking” about her experience and struggles with drug use and bipolar disorder. One of the most memorable parts of the book happens around page 10, when Fisher first learns that bipolar disorder is the reason why most of her adult life has been so, as she puts it, “f*cked up.” The doctor, upon breaking the news, easily rattles off a list of other famous and brilliant people who also suffered from a combination of alcohol and mental disorders, including Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Cole Porter, Yves St. Laurent, and Vivien Leigh. Add these names to a more general list of brilliant people with mental disorders, including Winston Churchill, Virginia Woolf, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Isaac Newton, and one starts to get the sense that one has to be insane in order to truly accomplish anything great.
Perhaps one does need to be mad to be a genius. But very few people, especially at a school like Harvard, are willing to admit that they’re not perfect. And many of us are prime targets for depression and eating disorders; we are high-achieving students at a high-pressure institution, prone to scathing self-criticism and inflated expectations.
We should not be in denial of our problems, especially if those problems can be chronically or fatally harmful. We certainly should not feel ashamed to seek help; we absolutely should not be made to feel inept when we do so. Harvard offers an abundance of mental health services, but it should do more to make its students feel confident and comfortable using these services.
True depressive, eating, and anxiety disorders are to be treated neither lightly nor as a means to an end of greatness. Depression can kill. Anorexia does kill. To its credit, Harvard seems to be aware of these dangers. There are many student and professional mental health groups here on campus waiting eagerly to help us if and when we need them.
And therapy is a good thing. There is an abundance of studies professing the positive effects of therapy on depression. Depression can get better by itself, but according to one study done in 1999, adolescents who received cognitive treatment for their depression had a 67 percent recovery rate, as opposed to a 48 percent recovery rate for those who received none. Numerous studies have examined the treatments for anorexia and eating disorders, including one done in 2003, which suggested that those who received therapy for anorexia nervosa had significantly higher recovery rates than those who did not.
These numbers are not trivial. Therapy has a real, beneficial effect. Harvard knows this and is trying to make us aware of it with numerous mental health days and free dining hall-based depression screenings throughout the year. But in our world, where the person sitting next to us in Lamont is just as stressed as we are, the idea of seeking help can appear as sign of weakness to our peers, a sign that we just “can’t hack it.” Many students who are suffering in silence do so because they’ve decided it’s better to contemplate suicide than to be looked at askance by their roommate for visiting a therapist. There’s something very wrong with this picture.
Harvard and University Health Services can counter the stigma many students feel by gently emphasizing during their yearly campaigns that these disorders are increasingly common, increasingly treatable, and most importantly, people want to help you overcome these problems. UHS has services to cater to every issue, including individual and group counseling sessions, as well as many weekly mental and physical health seminars given by various doctors of both the M.D. and Ph.D variety. These programs are excellent but hardly ever heard about. Peer counseling groups may do well to make their presence better felt by holding information sessions or other open house events in the houses, doing more active recruiting, and just generally making a bit more noise around campus. Better publicity never hurts. Those 8 1/2 by 11 flyers are colorful, but they get ruined quickly and are covered up by Collegium posters and Insitute of Politics forum adverts. In all cases, it must be better stressed that seemingly normal people, perhaps even that person next to you in Lamont, have used these resources and have benefited from them. If you need it, you should not be afraid to do the same.
Maya E. Shwayder ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Psychology concentrator in Pforzheimer House