Donning a Mask: Suicide at Harvard

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By the third “Sad News” email of 2012, Christine began to wonder how an achievement-driven environment like Harvard might aggravate mental illness—and, for some, ultimately lead to suicide. One of those emails stated that the student had taken his own life; within days of another, The Boston Globe and other media reported that the death was a suicide.

Paul J. Barreira, then the director of behavioral health and academic counseling for University Health Services, told The Crimson in October 2011 that the suicide rate among Harvard students was fewer than 5 per year for 100,000 students.

That rate would place Harvard well below the national average of 12 per 100,000, last reported by the Center for Disease Control in 2009, and below the average for college students, listed at 6.18 per 100,000 in a 2009-10 nationwide study conducted by a University of Virginia researcher.

Harvard’s relatively low rate, which was calculated before this year’s three deaths, counted enrolled students over a 10-year time frame at all of the University’s schools, according to University Health Services spokesperson Lindsey Baker, and excluded students on leave, following the convention of other universities nationwide.

Using a 5-year time frame focused solely on the undergraduate population, The Crimson found a significantly higher suicide rate.

Counting only enrolled undergraduates who committed suicide either on or off campus, the College’s suicide rate is 18.18 per 100,000. When students who committed suicide while taking a leave of absence are included, that rate increases to 24.24 per 100,000.

Even the most conservative calculation, made using only enrolled college students who committed suicide on campus, yields a rate of 12.12 per 100,000—over twice the rate provided by UHS last year, and nearly twice the national average for college students.

Whether examining the numbers or listening to individual survivors’ stories, the problem is painfully evident. This three-part series tracks the ways struggling students say University Health Services could serve them better, the efforts of a few University officials and student activists to change the numbers, and the difficult paths that mentally ill students currently navigate once they enter Harvard Yard.

DONNING THE MASK

Martin has attempted suicide twice while a student at Harvard.

“We put on a mask,” he says. “We put on a perfect face that just isn’t us. All of us are struggling and flawed in some way, but by putting on the mask we all end up magnifying the individual insecurities of the students who are here.”

Martin worries that a lack of open discourse makes it difficult for individuals to express their need for mental health care. Mental illness is stigmatized at Harvard, he says, and the seemingly successful student body is a large part of the problem.

“You come back from summer break, and everyone tells about their amazing summer. They tell perfect, unflawed stories. You begin feeling that everything we do is supposed to be successful; everyone is supposed to be so happy. It leads to a culture that amplifies feelings of inadequacy,” he says.

Christine came to Harvard thinking friends, leadership positions, and academic performance would liberate her mind from the past, but she soon found herself crying every day of her freshman year. She resisted the urge to tell someone about her depression because she thought she was the only one struggling.

“I came here and everyone was a National [Merit] Scholar; everyone was really smart,” she says. “It didn’t feel like any of the things I had accomplished in the past twenty years mattered because everyone had it—and more.”

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