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Help Is Just a Phone Call Away

By Sarah Jacoby

We're a campus of frazzled people. The casual, "Hello, how are you?" often elicits more than you may want to hear. "I have so much reading to catch up on. I can't believe it's midterms already...and I have a paper due tomorrow." Or maybe it's a roll of the eyes, accompanied by, "My roommates are driving me nuts. I can't believe how incompatible we all are." And there's the senior disease, "Uh...not so good. I'm having a crisis over what to do with the rest of my life."

Needless to say, problems have a tendency to run rampant in our brick Camelot. Do any of us do anything about it? Deal with our issue-filled lives? We read the brightly colored signs on the back of the doors in the bathroom stalls in Lamont. Various hotlines vie for our attention. Does anybody call and say, "Hi, life sucks and I can't handle this"? Do we make appointments at Mental Health Services? Do we drop by the Bureau of Study Counsel? Do we deal with our issues?

"Students frequently seek help in handling the deluge of stressful situations that inevitably arise in their four years at college," says this year's Unofficial Guide. "For guidance beyond the spectrum of issues handled (or ignored) by proctors and residential tutors, the Bureau of Study Counsel and Mental Health Services at UHS [University Health Services] are the places to start. Nearly a third of all Harvard students use Mental Health Services at some point."

No one needs to convince us of the "deluge of stressful situations" part. But do people really take advantage of the offerings to try to ease their troubled minds? Apparently, yes. According to Charles P. Ducey, director of the Bureau of Study Counsel, on average about 10 percent of the undergraduate student body uses one-on-one counseling and therapy services annually. An additional 30 to 40 percent of undergraduates participate in workshops, groups, tutoring and advising services. According to Richard Madison of UHS, the Mental Health Services division is "quite busy and well utilized," though no specific statistics are available on undergraduate use, he says. Some students, apparently, are talking out their problems.

What about hotlines? We've all seen the vaguely witty signs, but do we call when in need? Any anonymous getting-it-off-the-chest? Does anyone dial those phone numbers? Room 13, traditionally the peer counseling group with the broadest focus, fields an average of two calls per night, according to a staffer. When Response--a peer counseling service that focuses on women and sexual issues--counted several years ago, the group was averaging one call per week.

So why aren't the phones ringing? Why do students turn to the professionals and not call their friendly peer counselor? Maybe it is the very term "hotline." Though most peer-counseling groups also have rooms where people are welcome to drop by and talk, they are primarily defined by their phone numbers. And hotlines you call in a crisis, with "hot" issues. If you are just feeling down, it may be seem out of proportion to call one of these numbers. Conversely, you might call a hotline with problems that are itty-bitty--not worth a whole hour of your or your therapist's valuable time, but the perfect fodder for a quick phone call. All those in between may be going elsewhere. When issues don't quite seem to merit an emergency phone call but may be worth a lengthy discussion, perhaps people are turning to UHS or the Bureau of Study Counsel.

Maybe people aren't calling hotlines because they are run by students, by our peers. Are we more reluctant to turn to our peers for help an support? Who knows that the kid answering the phone isn't the very soul who is the root of your insecurities, answering hotlines while you languish in your room? Or maybe you know some students who staff the hotlines. Who wants to call them? They already know everyone you know, and who else would be driving you crazy? And why call peers if you have friends to talk to?.

So there are plausible reasons why people who could use someone to talk to may not be calling in droves. Are there solutions? Is there a way to make the Harvard student make a phone call and reach out for help? Just knowing about the hotlines helps. Staffers from Room 13 and Response mention that inclusion in the first-year orientation safety night has increased their profile on campus. They also stress that all hotlines are staffed by students who have been trained to answer calls and handle a wide range of situations. if friends are the problem, calling strangers might be the right idea.

As for friends staffing the phone lines, some staffers argue that hotline staff should remain completely anonymous so that the caller is comfortable. Others point out that if you know that people you like and respect are hotline staffers, you may have more confidence in the group and be more likely to call if the need arises. Though the latter argument raises a good point, it seems more likely that students would avoid calling those they know. After all, if you are calling an anonymous hotline, you are probably looking for just that--anonymity. Anything that undermines that cannot be good.

Another point raised by a Response staffer is that word-of-mouth recommendations are hard to come by in the world of hotlines. Comments like, "Hey, this horrible thing happened to me and I called Response and they were incredibly helpful and supportive" don't usually come up unsolicited in everyday conversation. On the other hand, in the Woody Allen age going to therapy may be something easy to do. Then again, in the self-help, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps American culture, seeking help is never easy, talking about it even harder.

Maybe the phones don't ring because everyone is well-adjusted and has it all under control: school, friends, even life after college. But I think not. Keep going to UHS and the Bureau of Study Counsel. And when all seems blue and you're not ready to deal with therapy, consider calling your friendly peer counselors. They're all set for your call.

Sarah B. Jacoby '99 is a history of science concentrator in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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