When a Harvard student anonymously published an op-ed in Thursday’s edition of The Crimson detailing the College’s failures in dealing with their mental illness, mental health issues took center-stage at Harvard. On the same day that the article was published, Paul J. Barreira, Director of Harvard University Health Services, introduced a series of new initiatives concerning stress and mental health. In a show of support for substantive change, more than 150 students rallied in front of Massachusetts Hall on Friday, proclaiming that, “Harvard can do better.”
As Thursday’s anonymous op-ed makes clear, the mishandling of a mental health case can have horribly damaging effects. The administration should revise University policies so that no student suffering from mental illness—including those on substantial financial aid—is ever pushed into a corner where treatment is difficult to obtain or prohibitively costly. All students should be able to receive counseling if they need it, and no student should hesitate to get help for fear that their financial aid might be jeopardized. Furthermore, there must be a safety net—a mental health emergency fund, perhaps—that ensures that students suffering from mental illness who cannot return home due to a precarious family situation are provided for. We cannot afford to discourage students from receiving treatment for fear that they would be forced to return to a home that is not conducive to their betterment.
Thankfully, Harvard seems at least to be cognizant of the need for more counseling opportunities on campus. According to Barreira, the hiring of more psychiatrists will mean that students will have quicker and easier access to the treatment they need. Other programs, such as a peer education group, will also help students cope with mental illness. These measures are certainly steps in the right direction and will hopefully send a message to students that they need not suffer alone.
The University should also authorize changes to its financial aid system and to its policies concerning medical leave, which appear to have been so egregiously damaging to the anonymous writer’s experience. The top levels of University administration must establish policies that coordinate the actions of financial aid, HUHS, and any other relevant offices to ensure that from now on mentally ill students on full financial aid are able to receive the treatment they need without fear of being sent away. If students like Thursday’s op-ed writer are too afraid of jeopardizing their place at the College to step forward and get help, their condition will never be ameliorated, and they may even become a danger to themselves or others. The College would then be at fault for their suffering, having stood by policies that intimidate students in need rather than help them proactively.
HUHS’ announced measures toward improving mental health at Harvard are positive steps. It remains deplorable, however, that any student could have gone through the ordeal experienced by the author of Thursday’s op-ed, and Harvard needs to address the failings that led to that ordeal. Students should be able to seek help without fearing for their financial aid or even their enrollment at the College. Any university should make an honest effort to prioritize the well-being of its students, mentally or otherwise. To that end, enacting some serious reform is the only responsible thing for Harvard to do.