It began with a kind of ache—throbbing, persistent. It was a “down” period like those I’d had before, except that the “down” now crept into the rest of each day, each week, until it became my new normal. It was mental, at first; “I just think too much,” I would joke to my parents. “I have to stop thinking so big.”
Shortly into the semester, though, it spread. It became physical: panic attacks came in debilitating waves, tears threatened to pierce any conversation. I would sit curled up at the corner of my bed and the wall, knees to my chest, shaking. I would try to sleep but couldn’t. Everything took longer. I had readings to do and papers to write, but they were to be done alone, and when I was alone I could let myself crumble.
During these months, it was somehow very important to me that no one knew this was happening. I spent less and less time with people, less and less time outside my room, so I had the strength to pretend everything was fine the few hours I was not alone. I cried into my pillow so my roommates wouldn’t hear. I would sit in history lecture as a panic attack came on and blink back tears, terrified that someone would notice. I wondered how everyone but me was so fine. Knowing I needed to spend time away, I applied to study abroad, which would elicit fewer questions than “taking time off.” I continued to isolate myself, which made me feel worse, which led to further isolation: It was a vicious cycle. I had never felt so alone.
If there’s anything this past year has taught me, it is how wrong I was. I was not alone. I am not alone. It is heartbreaking that it has taken, in part, two student suicides to realize this. Harvard, I think, is realizing it too. Along with such tragedies, the past year has witnessed emerging sources of hope: a Kirkland House discussion with President Drew G. Faust during which students raised questions on mental health; a suicide panel of student and recent alumni voices; a Crimson series on mental health at Harvard; and a Tumblr devoted to the same issues.
These discussions have sought to explain and understand student mental health at Harvard, broaching topics from services at UHS to a pervading atmosphere diagnosed, eloquently and memorably as “I Am Fine.” I cannot say with any kind of certainty where Harvard’s mental health problem—because we do, indeed, have a problem—comes from. Many of us, often, are far from fine. What I can say with certainty is that the conversation must go on.
This semester, we hope to write a long series of articles in an attempt to do just that. I am writing as a member of Harvard’s Student Mental Health Liaisons, a student group founded in 2008 to engage and inform students on issues of emotional wellbeing. Since getting involved with SMHL last fall, I have been inspired by the sincerity and earnestness of each member and the group as a whole in raising awareness on a broad swath of mental health issues on and beyond campus.
There needs to be a forum and catalyst for continuing discussions of mental health, and for establishing a community that supports improving mental health at Harvard. We plan to publish regular op-eds on a variety of topics this semester. We also want to hear from students, faculty, and other members of the Harvard community, who should get in touch with us through the contact section of our Harvard SMHL website so that their voices can be heard as well.
Let us keep the topic of mental and emotional wellbeing at the forefront this semester. In different ways we have all struggled, or are struggling, or will struggle, during our years at Harvard. I don’t think we can ever fully eliminate all difficulties. But we can work toward this by approaching them with empathy, compassion, and a desire to listen. We can tackle them with the knowledge that we are not alone.
Victoria A. Baena is a History and Literature concentrator in Eliot House.