Last week, The Crimson published a three-part series on mental health at Harvard. The story included interviews with several students who had attempted suicide as well as interviews with University administrators and peer mental health counselors. The narratives related in the series were at once bone chilling and all too familiar: Interviewees described how Harvard’s culture of stiff upper lips and unflagging one-upmanship led them to feel inadequate, as if they were the only ones struggling. Perhaps even more sobering was the College’s suicide rate, calculated by The Crimson to be about double the national average for college students.
While some students highlighted allegedly inadequate service at University Mental Health Services, it is clear that the greatest impediment to mental health at Harvard lies in our culture. The shiny veneer of perfection we all don subtly stigmatizes hardship, making those experiencing mental health issues more reluctant to talk openly about their problems. And while the problem is primarily cultural, the University could do more to make UMHS proactive and accessible. A good first step toward improving discourse about mental health on campus would be for the administration to release statistics about the yearly mental health survey.
When it comes to creating a culture of honesty with regard to personal struggles, the burden falls on each of us in our daily interactions. One student, going by the name of Martin, related a mundane but telling common experience: “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.” This situation repeats itself hundreds, if not thousands, of times a day in dining halls and common rooms. Surrounded by peers who can come across as flawless automatons, it is daunting to be the one to admit to struggling with grades, friends, or mental health. Our widespread reluctance to speak honestly about personal difficulty thus reinforces itself daily. For this reason, the administration ought to make figures on depression, suicidal thoughts, and other mental health issues public so that we can break the veneer of perfection that stifles frank conversation on mental health.
The series also described widespread confusion regarding mental health-related leaves of absence as well as general pessimism regarding the quality of care available at UMHS. Through programs like Student Mental Health Liaisons, the University is taking some steps to improve discourse on mental health on campus, but it is apparent that more needs to be done. First, the University ought to make clear the fact that no one will be forced to take a leave of absence for coming forward about mental health issues. Second, the University should consider such steps as assigning each student to a mental health professional in the same way that it currently assigns students to primary care physicians. This will normalize mental health as part of the healthcare regimen at Harvard, and it will make students more comfortable in reaching out.
All in all, the current state of stigmatization around mental illness is built by thousands of subtle and otherwise innocuous interactions every day. It is perhaps a natural element of such a competitive and high-pressure environment as Harvard. But all of us can and should take more action to improve the mental health of our campus.