Brain Break

At Harvard, it is remarkably easy to take a leave of absence­­—to recharge and recover—but it is not always so easy to return.

Emma R. Carron

Friends describe Janie as an incredibly focused individual, an academic powerhouse, and a “beast” in the athletic arena. In high school, she was a star student-athlete and a nationally ranked swimmer. In college, she has continued to swim for Harvard while rowing for the Radcliffe lightweight crew team.

“I went to a really competitive high school, so I always expected myself to do well,” she said on the phone from her home in New York. This extraordinary drive shaped Janie’s approach to college, and to life. On Monday, she had just returned home from running the Boston Marathon. It was her first time near campus since February.

Janie’s trouble began during Reading Period last fall. The stress of an overwhelming workload—four final papers and three final exams—began to mount; Janie suddenly felt herself losing control over functions that were once habitual.

“Everything just started to slow down, and that just got me even more frustrated,” she recalled.

She described the end of last semester as a downward spiral. Reading became a challenge; articulating thoughts and communicating with friends followed suit. Meanwhile, she withdrew from loved ones. She had been previously diagnosed with clinical depression, but this was a new and frightening experience.


It felt as if her brain were shutting down. “I couldn’t speak anymore,” she said. “I was writing papers and I had nothing to say...I was getting into this really vicious cycle.”

Reflecting on this period, Janie said her emotions peaked at what amounted to an “existential crisis.”

“[I thought,] ‘I can’t write because I can’t think and if I can’t think, why am I alive?’” she said. “It was a huge spiral; it was the biggest kind of slippery slope you could imagine.”

Janie said that while part of her knew she was being irrational, she clung to this reasoning in an attempt to make sense of things. She tried to rationalize her emotions, and became overcome by negativity and self-doubt. During this depressive episode, her supportive family was a lifeline. At the time, Janie felt wracked by guilt.

“I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’” she said. “‘I’m just such a burden to everyone,’—I became extremely suicidal.” Janie returned home after final exams profoundly exhausted. “I was hanging by a thread, and that thread just broke when I got home,” she recalled. She was constantly thinking of death and dying.

At home, Janie sought counseling from a psychiatrist who advised her to take a break from Harvard. She disagreed. She had performed exceptionally well the previous term despite her ordeal. In addition, winter crew training was approaching. She thought the structure and social nature of crew would only help her readjust.

When she returned to campus, however, Janie again felt disconnected from her peers.

In February, she decided to visit Mental Health Services at UHS for an intake session. In the preliminary assessment, Janie relayed her whole story—including her thoughts of suicide. The therapist was concerned. She asked Janie to schedule a follow-up appointment.

But even with her suicidal thoughts and the concerns of those around her, Janie was reluctant to suspend her life at Harvard. She had excelled here and wanted things to work out at school—especially after already having taken a leave for health reasons the previous spring.