Students Talk Campus Mental Health Stigma With Coakley

Martha Coakley on Mental Health
Former Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley joined Student Mental Health Liaisons and other undergraduates to discuss the stigma surrounding mental health at Harvard and nationwide, and the necessity of better and more consistent mental health education at all levels of the school system.
UPDATED: November 2, 2015, at 9:40 p.m.

In a discussion about mental health with former Massachusetts Attorney General Martha M. Coakley on Wednesday, College students called on Harvard and student groups to address institutional problems and stigma surrounding mental health on campus.

The University provides a host of mental health resources for students, including professional staff members at Harvard University Health Services and the Bureau of Study Counsel and peer counseling groups. Still, Jennifer Y. Yao ’16, a Student Mental Health Liaison and Crimson multimedia editor, said stigma might prevent students from seeking help.

“Stigma doesn’t just affect people until they get through the door. It affects people all the way through treatment. Ultimately, [stigma] is here at Harvard,” said Kevin Wehmhoefer, a licensed independent clinical social worker at UHS.

In February 2013, an op-ed in The Crimson triggered campus-wide discussion about the University’s mental health resources and policies. Two days later, students protested outside Massachusetts Hall, urging administrators to take action.

Two years later, students said Wednesday, issues persist.

“There are definitely institutional things that need to be corrected,” Eduardo S. Cabral ’16 said at the discussion.

For her part, Coakley said society at large has made strides in recent years toward treating and diagnosing mental health, but that more action is required.

“This meeting wouldn’t have taken place 10 years ago,” she said, adding later that “It’s something that we can tackle in the next 10 or 20 years… It’s a nonpartisan issue. We’ll just have to keep pushing it.”

Coakley also said the stigma surrounding mental health must be addressed for people who suffer from related illnesses to seek out the help they need.

Sara S. Surani ’18 said mental health was stigmatized even before she arrived at Harvard, specifically in the community where she grew up, and she said she continues to see the same stigmatization on campus. “You’re anxious? You didn’t study enough. For depression, it’s ,‘You’re weak,’” Surani said. “People don’t want to get help because that’s admitting that you’re weak.”

Cabral also referenced the stigma attached to mental health issues. “You shouldn’t have to be brave or courageous to tell your story,” Cabral said. “You aren’t brave if you tell someone how you broke your arm.”

The silence that surrounds these issues is also an issue, according to Coakley. “Most people just don’t know what to say about it,” she said.

Coakley argued that overcoming stigma is only one aspect. Mental health issues, she said, “are not some type of martian virus. We know about these things, and we can do better. It’s about where we put our resources.”

The talk, organized by the Institute of Politics and the Phillips Brooks House Association, is part of the IOP’s “Let’s Talk Harvard” campaign, which looks to connect students who are addressing an issue on campus with public figures who address those issues in the public sphere.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: November 2, 2015

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Jennifer Y. Yao ’16 said Harvard procedures might prevent some students from seeking help for mental health issues. In fact, Yao referred more broadly to barriers associated with seeking help.


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