A Healthier Harvard
By Megan B. Prasad, Tara Raghuveer, and Jen Q. Y. Zhu
For almost two weeks now, transformative energy has swept our campus on the topic of mental health at Harvard. On February 22, Undergraduate Council representatives attended a rally to stand in solidarity with our peers in response to the poignant anonymous op-ed published the previous day. As representatives, we felt that it was our responsibility to understand student sentiment on this issue.
We recognize that student groups, including Student Mental Health Liaisons and peer counseling groups, have been working in collaboration with University Health Services to improve mental health in our community for years. The gravity of their work cannot be overstated, and our peers, trained multiple times each year to navigate mental health concerns, cannot be ignored as invaluable resources.
The UC has also worked to improve student mental health by empowering students to directly interact with UHS. These interactions have occurred primarily through the UHS student-faculty committee and the Peer Patient Advocacy student-faculty committee. Appointed representatives to the UHS student-faculty committee pushed for the creation of a peer health advocate program in each dorm.
Peer Patient Advocate positions were created this past year to solicit student feedback on experiences with UHS and direct those patients to the Patient Advocate, Linda Cannon, who is charged with investigating negative experiences and planning solutions. Though the structures exist to facilitate communication between student and Harvard’s health care providers, Peer Patient Advocates have found students generally unaware of the Advocate program, wary of reaching out, and hesitant to give specific information to work toward solutions.
The Student Health Planning Committee worked to improve communication to students. Thanks to their work, this fall students received emails indicating their personal physician team, contact information, and name and information of UHS' Patient Advocate; all Houses and freshman dorms were sent a list of the physical and mental health resources available. The committee also focused on making UHS voluntarily compliant with the Affordable Care Act, such as by expanding the number of therapy visits to 24 and covering the cost of medications.
As a result of a specific recommendation of the Mental Health Task Force citing a need for greater communication for mental health resources to students, the wellness tutor program began in 2004. However, despite the progress made, lack of required training and disparities in tutors’ interests lead to inequalities in quality of mental health care support and resources on campus.
Students have been able to impact Harvard policy to improve student health in the past, and we hope that the current campus energy around mental health can stimulate further discussion and improvements.
Harvard's services are strong relative to peer institutions, and there is no doubt that we have dedicated professionals, administrators, and peers working to improve campus mental health. However, as a community, we must avoid complacency on this issue. We should strive for the improved mental health of each Harvard student; mental health should not fall prey to the institutional comparisons that Harvard favors. This is not about Princeton or Yale—this is about Harvard and what we can do better to benefit our students.
Over 150 students attended the rally on February 22. The rally had no organizer, and word spread in under 24 hours. Regardless of the strength of our services, getting 150 Harvard students anywhere on a Friday afternoon without months of planning is a statement we cannot ignore.
The UC heard our peers at the rally, and we have not ignored the call to action. We are hosting a town hall discussion this evening from 7-9 p.m. in Emerson Hall 105. The panel will feature Katherine Lapierre, Chief of UHS Student Mental Health Services; Sally Donahue, Director of Financial Aid; Brett Flehinger, Associate Secretary of the Administrative Board and former Resident Dean; Nancy Turnbull, Senior Lecturer on Health Policy and Associate Dean for Educational Programs at Harvard School of Public Health; Angela Lee ’14, Co-President of Student Mental Health Liaisons; and Rishab Mehan ’14, former Co-Director of Room 13 and a Peer Advising Fellow. We have been soliciting questions and have also made time for open discussion. We ask you to come and voice your opinions so we can improve the resources available at Harvard and make communication between the administration and students more clear.
Mental health is an issue that is relevant to every Harvard student, and it demands an urgent call for attention. It is important to raise awareness and encourage discussion among the greater Harvard community. We must capitalize on this moment on campus.
We look forward to our future action. We have started fruitful collaborations with other student groups, and we plan to extend this conversation—beginning with tonight’s town hall—to other pockets of the Harvard community, including Houses and classrooms. As we learned two weeks ago, this issue is multifaceted, and the discussion should reflect that. We must answer questions about financial aid and the Ad Board, listen to the feedback surrounding mental health services, and work as a community to dispel misinformation and find solutions. Every interested voice should be included in these conversations. Together we can strive for a healthier Harvard.
Megan B. Prasad '15, a Crimson magazine editor, is an economics concentrator in Eliot House. She is a representative on the Undergraduate Council. Tara Raghuveer ’14, an inactive Crimson magazine editor is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. She is the president of the Undergraduate Council. Jen Q. Y. Zhu ’14, an inactive Crimson photo editor, is a government and sociology concentrator in Quincy House. She is the vice president of the Undergraduate Council and a Peer Patient Advocate.