A Mental Health Reality Check

I graduated from Harvard College in December, just in time to start work at a state psychiatric hospital in my home state of South Carolina. South Carolina has endured the deepest budget cuts to mental health of any state in the United States over the past four years, and the hospital where I work has more empty beds than filled ones. We have three psychiatrists for the whole hospital—and one of them is quitting next week. There is a long waiting list of severely mentally ill people who need treatment we may not be able to provide, simply because we do not have the resources to do so.

It is in the context of my new job that I have been hearing about the surging interest among Harvard students in demanding reform of University Mental Health Services. As someone who received a significant amount of mental health treatment at University Health Services and as someone who spent much time advocating for mental health during my time at Harvard, I want to offer my brief perspective.

As anyone who knows me can confirm, I am beyond thrilled at the attention mental health is receiving around the country, despite the etiology of that attention. While at Harvard, I was deeply involved in bringing attention to the mental health services available on campus. I am glad to see that Harvard students have turned their energies to mental health in a new and forceful way. Yet, I believe that students at Harvard need a reality check on the relative quality of services to which they have access.

According to a clinician at UHS, there is so much demand for mental health on Harvard’s campus, that even if UHS doubled the size of MHS tomorrow, there still would not be enough resources to go around. This is absolutely unacceptable. This should simply not be the case at one of the best universities in the country. It is especially worrisome because Harvard College is a residential community, and many students expect to have all their healthcare needs met within that community. Of course, this sets Harvard apart from many other colleges in the country, where students must look outside the university setting and navigate the local community in finding the healthcare resources they need.

There are also, as has been mentioned numerous times, undue complexities in the relationship between the College and UHS for students who want to receive mental health services on campus without interrupting their studies. I encountered these problems repeatedly in my time at Harvard.  I didn’t know whether I should consider my resident dean a confidante or an agent of the Ad Board. At one point, after taking a medical leave, I was notified two days before I had been planning to return to campus that the Ad Board had denied my application for readmission. I could go on. The bureaucratic complexities of Harvard make things harder than they have to be on students dealing with major mental health issues. This is something that certainly needs to be addressed.

At the end of the day, though, I am thankful that UHS was there for me when I needed it. I was able to receive extended treatment at McLean Hospital, a Harvard affiliate that is consistently ranked one of the best psychiatric hospital in the country. Although the first therapist I saw at UHS seemed to be falling asleep on me, I found other clinicians who gave the highest quality care I can imagine. It is impossible to know, of course, but I am not sure I would still be alive today if it hadn’t for the mental health treatment I received at Harvard.

This level of care is not available in most locations: It wasn’t for me when I was away from the College. A two-day hospitalization in South Carolina cost me many thousands of dollars and provided me with nothing but memories of unsympathetic and unprofessional staff members cursing at annoying patients. I was lucky even to get in. At this moment, there are people waiting for beds, many in local emergency rooms, to free up in the hospital where I work, even though over half the beds are empty due to a dual lack of funds and psychiatrists. In total contrast, a Harvard student can walk in to UHS at any time, 24/7, and see someone immediately. If the issue is one of suicidality or psychosis, or is immediately dangerous, then that student can be admitted quickly and efficiently to a nearby hospital, most likely McLean.

I realize many have different perspectives on this issue. I know that there is much that can be improved at Harvard on the mental health front. But when protesting and criticizing Harvard mental health services, we should remember simultaneously that, believe it or not, we have access to some of the highest quality mental health services in the world.

Seth A. Riddley ’12, a History and Science concentrator, lived in Mather House. This is part of a semester-long series organized by SMHL (Student Mental Health Liaisons) to encourage conversation around mental health.

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