Handle With Care

Some students encounter troubling limits on therapy at UHS Mental Health Services

Seth Riddley ’08-’12 had never suffered from psychiatric problems before coming to college, but soon after moving from South Carolina to Cambridge to begin his freshman year, he faced family difficulties and began to seriously consider suicide.

Riddley approached his resident dean, who immediately referred him to Harvard University Health Services. UHS physicians sent Riddley to McLean Hospital—a psychiatric facility associated with Harvard Medical School—escorted in a cab by his resident dean.

The experience ushered Riddley into Harvard’s mental health system, which he has been intimately involved with throughout the six years since he first arrived on campus as a freshman. Since his initial crisis, Riddley has taken four years off—mainly due to mental health issues—and he continues to see therapists and prescribers at UHS.

“I don’t know how I would have made it without what I’ve encountered as tremendous quality mental health care here,” Riddley recalls.

Students and UHS administrators have endlessly debated the quality of Harvard’s mental health services, which treats about 15 percent of the students in the College—or roughly 1,000 undergraduates—in any given school year, according to Director of Behavioral Health and Academic Counseling Paul J. Barreira.

The wrongful death lawsuit filed against Harvard College and UHS last November focused campus attention on potential issues with UHS’s mental health policies. The family of John B. Edwards III ’10, who committed suicide in Nov. 2007, alleges that the negligent psychiatric care that Edwards received at UHS contributed to his death.

While several students say that UHS services have improved in recent years, particularly praising the accessibility of appointments, others say they have encountered frustrating limits on the amount of therapy they can receive or have had negative experiences with therapists during some of their most vulnerable moments.

LIMITATIONS ON CARE

One of the primary concerns among students who have frequented UHS mental health services over an extended period of time is the perceived restriction on the number of visits they are permitted.

Harvard undergraduate Joseph, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, began receiving therapy at UHS during his freshman year, and says his therapist told him that he was limited to only receiving therapy once every two weeks.

“No matter how good the therapist is, every two weeks isn’t necessarily the right amount,” Joseph says.

Rachel, a freshman whose name has also been changed, says she was similarly limited to one therapy session every two weeks—inadequate for her needs. Though she liked her therapist, she says she stopped receiving care at UHS because of the limited amount of help the system could provide.

“I was just very upset that I didn’t get as much out of it as I had expected or hoped to,” Rachel says. “I do feel stuck and lost, and I need help and it’s there—but it’s not enough.”

Rachel says her therapist directly referenced a 12-session limit at which Rachel’s therapy would have to be re-evaluated, although her therapist was confident that she would qualify for treatment beyond that constraint.

Several students interviewed for this piece say that they have been limited in the amount of in-house therapy that UHS was willing to provide. While some say that they were restricted to an every-other-week therapy regimen, others say that they had been cognizant of some form of an unofficial limit on sessions.

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