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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.
Thirty-three percent of students reported feeling exhausted—for reasons other than physical activity—11 or more times in the past school year.
A significant portion of students are also not getting the exercise they need; twenty-two percent of those surveyed reported no vigorous or moderate exercise in the previous week.
And when asked whether any of 24 factors had affected their academic performance within the last school year, stress and sleep issues made up more than half of undergraduates’ citations.
Despite concerns that students are not seeking help, UHS has seen an overall increase in the number of students receiving treatment for depression and other mental health problems over the past three years.
“We’ve had a significant increase in our staffing to meet the demand, but the demand has grown as quickly as the new staffing, which I see as a good sign,” Kadison wrote.
Kadison said that he thinks that the increased presence of peer counseling groups is one reason for the increase.
“Students are more likely to listen to their peers and these groups are helping students to get information and learn about resources,” he wrote.
Rise in Sexual Assault
There was a statistically significant rise in reported incidents of sexual assault on campus last year. The percentage of students who were involved in sexual touching against their will increased to 9.7 percent last year, up from the 7.6 percent who reported being victims of such acts in 2000.
Moreover, 0.9 percent—1.3 of female respondents and 0.3 percent of male respondents—reported actual sexual penetration against their will. Though lower than the national average, which was 1.8 percent in 2000, that figure still means that at least nine out of the 930 students on campus who completed this survey said they had been raped over the course of the previous year.
Students’ perceived access to information about sexual assault has increased markedly in the last two years. In the most recent survey, 82 percent reported receiving information on sexual assault and rape, more than any other health-related topic and a ten percent increase from 2000.
These statistics come nearly a year after the Faculty’s controversial vote to require corroborating evidence before the College’s Administrative Board investigates peer-to-peer disputes—including claims of sexual assault.
The backlash to that policy change led to the formation of a committee to review and make recommendations on Harvard’s support services for victims of sexual violence and on preventive, educational and outreach programs to reduce the incidence of sexual violence in the College.
That committee was the third in a one-year span formed to examine the way that Harvard deals with sexual assault.
Everybody’s Doing It
Questions about students’ sexual habits revealed that Harvard students are less sexually active than their peers at other institutions, though that is definitely not the perception of students on campus.
According to the survey, 49.3 percent Harvard students have never had vaginal sex. But Harvard undergraduates have a much higher estimate of the amount of sex their fellow students are having.
For example, 61.4 percent of Harvard students said they believed the typical Harvard student had had vaginal sex with 2 or more partners over the course of the last year. But only 22.8 percent of students reported having vaginal sex with
that number of partners. In fact, 41.8 percent of the survey respondents said that they had not had vaginal sex with any partner during the previous year.
But those Harvard students who are engaging in sexual activity are much more likely to use some form of contraception than the typical American college student. Roughly 60 percent of those students who had engaged in vaginal intercourse reported mostly or always using a condom. That’s up three percent from 2000 and significantly higher than the national average, which in recent years has been about 45 percent.
Kadison, however, says that level of contraception use is still below where it should be.
Another interesting finding of the survey is that Harvard students are roughly twice as likely as their peers to use emergency contraception. Use of the morning after pill up to 14.2 percent this year from 13 percent in 2000. The national average in 2000 was just 6.7 percent.
Other Interesting Findings
The survey had several other important findings not directly related to sexual health.
For instance, 40.4 percent (23 percent men and 54 percent of women) reported that they were actively trying to lose weight.
UHS has also seen an increase in students seeking treatment for acute alcohol intoxication. “There have been at least two incidents that might have led to the death of a student if they hadn’t been brought in when they were,” Kadison wrote. Furthermore, 9.8 percent of students reported having unprotected sex as a result of drinking, which was a large jump from the 7 percent who reported such actions in the 2000 survey.
—Staff writer Ebonie D. Hazle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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