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Two months after the University Provost’s office fired its point person on mental health, members of a student group that focuses on the issue say they have been left without an advocate in the Harvard administration.
Former assistant provost Marsha H. Semuels, whose position was eliminated over the summer, had spent seven years in the office organizing University-wide programs on mental health and coordinating the efforts of University Health Services (UHS), the Bureau of Study Council and student groups.
The leaders of the Harvard Mental Health Awareness and Advocacy Group (MHAAG)—an undergraduate group dedicated to reaching out to students facing mental illness or depression—said Semuels was irreplaceable and her termination could signal a lessened commitment to including student groups in mental health initiatives.
“It’s left us without a powerful advocate, without any advocate really, and we we’re really angry,” said MHAAG co-chair Caitlin E. Stork ’04. “What has happened is that it’s left us, and the interests of mental health at Harvard, unattended.”
University spokesperson Joe Wrinn said that initiatives Semuels ran—such as the “Caring for the Harvard Community” workshops and outreach efforts—will still take place.
Wrinn said Semuels’ job was cut because Provost Steven E. Hyman decided his office should no longer directly manage those kinds of programs.
“The provost felt that, given his expanding portfolio, it was more appropriate that the management of activities be carried out by the departments closest to them, while the provost’s office would retain the oversight and policy setting that was important to them,” Wrinn said.
Semuels confirmed she would not be returning to the provost’s office but declined to comment further on her employment situation.
Wrinn noted that Hyman, a psychiatrist who directed the National Institute of Mental Health before becoming provost two years ago, is an expert in the field.
Hyman has said that improving mental health is a priority and spoke at last year’s Mental Health Week on the importance of eliminating the stigma attached to mental illness.
The provost’s deputy chief of staff, Sean T. Buffington ’91, said in an e-mail two weeks ago that Semuels was “on leave for personal reasons.”
Wrinn said Buffington had given the original answer because “we rarely talk about employment situations, and I think it was out of respect to Marsha’s privacy.”
Although Wrinn said that the “position was eliminated” as of Sept. 1, many of Semuel’s responsibilities will be taken on by others within the office.
Semuels was the provost’s office representative to a Harvard-wide group that coordinates response—from the news office, the police and operations—to emergencies like suicides, and Wrinn said the provost’s office will retain that responsibility.
And Doreen Koretz, who began work in July as assistant provost for social sciences—a newly created position—will replace Semuels as the staff representative to the Student Health Coordinating Board.
Members of MHAAG, however, said that Semuels’ personal interactions with students and her contacts with mental health experts both within and beyond the University will be hard to replace.
“Basically I’m not aware of any other person who’s willing to make mental health a top priority,” said MHAAG co-chair David B. Canose ’04.
Stork noted that top administrators like Hyman, UHS Mental Health Director Richard D. Kadison and Bureau of Study Counsel Director Charles P. Ducey were too busy to be consistent resources for students.
“It would be great if the administration would focus more on mental health at Harvard, but somebody like Marsha really cared about students,” Canose said. “Her connection with students was obvious in every interaction we had with her.”
Several MHAAG members noted that Semuels could draw “big-name” speakers for panel discussions and other events.
Stork said Semuels raised thousands of dollars for Mental Health Week, a series of events aimed at increasing awareness and destigmatizing mental illness.
MHAAG secretary Andrew L. Kalloch ’06 said that so far this year the group had been able to find experts through their own contacts around the University. “Many of these personal relationships are based upon some sort of patient-doctor relationship or student-faculty relationship, so if at any point the group does not have people who have those connections, it might be harder,” Kalloch said.
Ducey said Semuels “was instrumental in every aspect” of planning what he called the “mammoth initiative” of Caring for the Harvard Community.
Semuels—who also worked on revising sexual assault policies—said she felt one of her biggest contributions to improving mental health was in staffing a committee which produced a 1999 report detailing 27 recommendations to make Harvard’s care system more effective.
“There’s been a lot of progress made,” she said. “I think most recommendations have been implemented.”
Stork said MHAAG’s new administration contact is Dean of Freshman Elizabeth Studley Nathans, but that the group has not yet had any interaction with her.
“I think this is very random,” Stork said. “I don’t know if it’s because they think most mental health problems happen in the freshman class, or what, but even if that’s true, that doesn’t mean we can neglect all the other classes.”
But Undergraduate Council President Rohit Chopra ’04 said Nathans headed the College’s UHS committee and was “pretty aggressive on student health.”
Kadison, the psychiatrist who leads UHS’s mental health department, wrote in a e-mail that while he “will personally miss” Semuels, many of her projects will be taken over by others such as Koretz, the new assistant provost.
“Some of the work, like Caring for the Harvard Community, was transitioned to other individuals last year, and some of the work she was involved in has been completed,” he wrote. “Her energy and enthusiasm will certainly be missed, but there are many committed people who have worked with her and will continue the work she has been involved with.”
—Staff writer Katharine A. Kaplan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Elisabeth S. Theodore can be reached at email@example.com.
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