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Group Tackles Mental Health

By Katharine A. Kaplan, Crimson Staff Writer

A committee charged with implementing recommendations to overhaul campus mental health services convened for the first time yesterday, focusing on the goals of lessening the barriers to seeking care, examining the role of the Bureau of Study Council and improving Upperclass Houses’ involvement in mental health.

Dean of the College Benedict H. Gross ’71 and Provost Steven E. Hyman formed the Student Mental Health Task Force this fall to jumpstart efforts to reform the way Harvard deals with mental health, after two committees had explored the issue in recent years.

The task force will avoid evaluating the recommendations the committees have made, members said, instead focusing on taking the next step to institute the suggested changes to mental health services.

“Our task is not to rethink what has been done before,” said Elizabeth J. Quinn ’04, a member of the task force.

Dr. Paul J. Barreira, chair of the task force, said the group must act quickly to “get the job done.” The task force plans to be finished with its work by April, according to Barreira.

Two University committees in the last five years have examined mental health—one in 1999 and one last year—releasing reports detailing areas for improvement in the school’s services, which the task force broadly reviewed at the meeting.

“I was really impressed at how the administrators and clinicians who are there really do know the problems with [University Health Services] and the Bureau,” said task force member Caitlin E. Stork ’04, who is also co-chair of the Mental Health Advocacy and Awareness Group (MHAAG). “They actually do have really detailed information on all the problems, and don’t know how to fix them.”

One recommendation of previous committees focuses on a clarification of the Bureau’s role in mental health services.

“I think everyone would like to see the Bureau of Study Council be able to take more students through the front door who see that they’re having trouble adjusting to life at Harvard,” Barreira said.

He stressed the complementary roles of the Bureau and UHS in providing students with care for mental health.

“We want to be able to keep the Bureau of Study Council focused on its role as one portal of entry for students to get help, but also to be able to use all the mental health services that are available to provide treatment,” Barreira said.

The task force also considered the idea of moving UHS mental health services out of its current location, on the fourth floor of the Holyoke Center, as one part of an effort to reduce misconceptions that UHS only treats more serious mental health cases.

“I think there exists some sort of characterizations about what the Bureau of Study Council does and what UHS does, that I’m not sure they’re all that accurate,” Barreira said. “I think UHS gets characterized as only doing medical treatment, which is not an accurate portrayal of all they provide.”

Stork said that the location of UHS mental health services in a hospital setting and its lack of privacy may discourage some students from seeking care.

“To go there, you’re walking into a hospital and it’s kind of scary,” Stork said. “If you push that ‘four’ button, they know exactly where you’re going, as opposed to the Bureau, which is much less stigmatized.”

The task force also tossed around the idea of combining the two venues into a single location, in the hopes of transferring some of the approachability of the Bureau to UHS services, Stork said.

However, Stork said some committee members expressed reservations about the idea, arguing that combining the venues might actually increase the stigma associated with the Bureau.

The existence of a stigma hindering students from seeking mental health care is a constant issue when considering improvement, Barreira said.

“Somehow we’ve got to advance people’s education and awareness about getting treatment for a mental health problem,” Barreira said. “People want to pretend they don’t need treatment.”

He said student groups will play a large role in alleviating this concern, along with use of websites and the continuance of the Caring for the Harvard Community program, an education initiative dedicated to increasing awareness of mental health services.

The group will also discuss methods of improving education and training for House tutors to encourage greater and more helpful interaction between students and their advisors, Barreira said.

The task force also reviewed figures from a depression screening run by MHAAG in November, which showed high rates of depression and anxiety disorder among students—in seniors and black students in particular—Stork said.

“I think it’s a good example of the need to be able to find different venues for identifying students who are distressed,” Barreira said of the screening. “In the survey, there were a sizeable number of students who had not had any therapy, which underscores what the task force already intends to address. The Harvard community needs multiple ways to get information to help them get into help.”

The task force will meet for the second time during reading period.

The groups is composed of Barreira, who is director of community clinical services and a psychiatrist at McLean Hospital, Undergraduate Council President Rohit Chopra ’04, UHS Chief of Medicine Christopher M. Coley, Sarah E. Henrickson ’01, Associate Dean Georgene B. Herschbach, Professor of International Health Jennifer Leaning ’68, Dean of Freshmen Elizabeth S. Nathans, Assistant Dean John T. O’Keefe, UHS psychiatrist James K. O’Rourke, Quinn, Bureau clinician M. Suzanne Renna, Chair of Harvard’s UHS Visiting Committee Lorraine Siggins, Stork and Director of Student Financial Services Ryan C. Williams.

—Staff writer Katharine A. Kaplan can be reached at kkaplan@fas.harvard.edu.

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