In January, an annual survey—The American Freshman: National Norms—released an assessment of the emotional and mental wellbeing of first-year students at American colleges, the results of which notably included two sections entitled: “Students’ Perceived Emotional Health at Record Low” and “Expectations of Satisfaction and Participation in College Activities at Record Highs.” This stupefying contradiction might sound familiar to anyone who picked up a copy of Fifteen Minutes last Thursday and read “I Am Fine,” a poignant and anonymous portrayal of personal pain that struck a chord that resonated profoundly throughout the student body. The article’s popularity—it received 82 comments and 993 Likes and counting on Facebook—is a thundering testament to how deeply each one of us recognizes our own face in this anonymous portrait , whether as fellow Harvard students or just as kindred spirits.
We cannot ignore such an outpouring of emotion and solidarity, and moving forward, the College, too, must heed this clarion call: Harvard must prioritize the emotional well-being of its students from day one. This change necessitates a shift in campus culture away from solipsism and toward a positive atmosphere that inspires students to care more about the peers they encounter on a daily basis. There must be more candid conversation and more interpersonal interaction.
Hands down, a crucial move the College could make is to encourage more one-on-one contact among students. An institution responsible for the food, shelter, and activity of nearly 6,000 gifted individuals cannot shy away from this responsibility. As the anonymous author describes, Harvard students are often too absorbed in the spheres of their own ambitions to pay close attention to the emotional signals being emitted by their peers, or to want to emit any signals of their own. Perfectionism is an ugly beast which, as many students understand, can manifest itself in a 4.0 or in an unshakeable insistence on showing the world that no matter what happens, “I Am Fine”. It is time for us as a community to rethink whichever “Expectations of Satisfaction and Participation in College Activities” are not helping us enjoy college, and instead are dragging us down. Closer relationships among students and a culture of comfortable conversation among peers—“strangers” as well as friends—are essential in curbing this Harvard-wide, if not nationwide, sense of student malaise.
In this vein, there are a few concrete steps we believe the College can take toward building a new support structure for and among its lifeblood: the student body. Harvard should raise awareness about mental health as much as it does about drugs and alcohol, by way of institutions as prolific as the Drug and Alcohol Peer Advisors or information sessions on resources as informative as library research tutorials. A delicate and transparent treatment of the topic—that is to say, one neither condescending nor heavy-handed—could potentially de-stigmatize the issue of mental health on campus and help more students in need to come forward. In this way could Harvard become a community in which admitting “I Am Not Fine” does not feel as sinful as a red letter on one’s chest. Through such a mechanism, the College could ensure that all its students are well equipped to identify signs of emotional distress among their peers which, although not uniform, are much easier to recognize once known. We are the ones best positioned to notice when a blockmate or friend is under unusual levels of stress and anxiety, so we should have the knowledge to identify a serious problem no matter how deep it may be buried.
Harvard’s existing mental health resources are effective, but if we demand structural change, then they must be bolstered by initiatives that are proactive rather than just reactive. Without this framework shift, Harvard students will continue doing what they do best: pouring themselves into studies and activities and ignoring how little of themselves there is left to pour out, sometimes until it is too late.
We commend the author of this piece, Student X, for giving voice and form to a problem that leaves many students speechless. As fellow students and as sympathizers, we express our gratitude to this brave writer for demonstrating the power of sincere emotional communication. Instead of texting, we could connect with the person sitting right next to us, just as we have with this anonymous student—if we take the time and bravery to open up. We, as much as the College, must address the trend that this student has thrown into sharp relief. We must have the courage to admit when we are “Not Fine,” for as this author has experienced, anyone who does need not be alone.