Survey Finds Depression Pervasive in College

Nearly half of the Harvard College student body felt depressed during the last academic year and almost 10 percent of undergraduates reported that they had considered suicide, according to the results of a survey released by University Health Services (UHS) earlier this month.

The survey results reveal a startling number of undergraduates battling depression at Harvard and cite stress and lack of sleep as the leading factors affecting students’ academic performances.

And, more alarming to College administrators, most students are not reaching out for help.

“The biggest problem the University faces is finding ways to reduce the stigma of depression so people will come in for care,” UHS Director of Mental Health Services Richard D. Kadison wrote in an e-mail.

According to the results, less than half of those students diagnosed with depression are currently in therapy, though the figure is up from the 32.4 percent who said two years ago they were seeking counseling.

The survey, completed by roughly 14 percent of undergraduates enrolled during the 2001-2002 academic year, also found a high number of incidents of sexual assault on campus. Nearly 10 percent of Harvard undergraduates were involved in sexual touching against their will during the last year, according to the survey results, and about one percent of students reported involuntary sexual penetration.


UHS randomly sampled 2,500 of the 6,650 of the Harvard undergraduates enrolled during the 2001-2002 academic year, and 930 surveys were returned, for a roughly 37.2 percent response rate.

The health survey was only the second attempt to track Harvard students’ health behavior and attitudes since an initiative in 2000 where UHS partnered with the American College Health Association to investigate the health of students at Harvard and to compare those findings to national statistics. Prior to that joint effort, there was virtually no data about adolescent health available that was specific to college students.

College of the ‘Overwhelmed’

The UHS survey results reflect a stressed student body.

According to the results, 47.4 percent of students at the College reported feeling depressed at least once during the past academic year, and about a third say they’ve felt overwhelmed 11 or more times—the highest category choice.

Almost ten percent of students said that they had been clinically diagnosed with depression, and more than half of those students said that diagnosis came within the last year. In 2000, only a third of students who said they were clinically depressed said they had been diagnosed in the past year.

And 1.1 percent of those surveyed—roughly nine students—reported that they had attempted suicide in the last year.

Dean of the College Harry R. Lewis ’68 said that he thinks the demanding work ethic and the high stress level of some students may be partly to blame for Harvard students’ poor mental health.

“Certainly I am not surprised by the generally high levels of reported stress and depression…I do think that students expect too much of themselves and sometimes take too much on,” he wrote in an email.

The survey statistics support Lewis’ hypothesis.