Students Reach For Help in Vain

College advisers inconsistent in responses to mental health problems

Justin H. Haan

Assistant Dean of the College John T. O’Keefe, who is also a former senior tutor, will work on extending training for House tutors this year.

One Saturday night last spring, Ry an Wilkes ’04 showed his entryway tutor the suicide letter he had written earlier that day.

The tutor told him to make an appointment with a counselor at the Bureau of Study Counsel on Monday.

For Wilkes, who had attempted suicide once before at Harvard and suffered from severe depression, the tutor’s reaction was shockingly dismissive.

“I figured they would send me to [University Health Services (UHS)], call UHS...I was going out of my mind. I was going to jump off of a building,” the former Winthrop House resident says of the hours spent waiting after he took the letter to his tutor.

“I was just waiting, I thought someone was going to come in my room and take me to UHS and get me help. I thought, ‘Someone’s going to help me.’ And no one did,” he says.



The next day, Wilkes placed his computer, with the letter on the screen, in front of a friend in the dining hall. The friend took him to UHS, where doctors checked Wilkes into a psychiatric hospital.

He’s now home in Atlanta, not sure if he’ll return to school.

Through three years of on-and-off enrollment at Harvard, Wilkes says he reached out to administrators and residential advisers several times and was unable to get lasting help.

Wilkes says his mental health problems started his freshman year when he was “dragged out of the closet” by one of his four roommates.

He attempted to commit suicide by overdosing on pills just before Thanksgiving and was sent to a nearby psychiatric hospital. After agreeing to get therapy for the rest of his freshman year, Wilkes was allowed back in school, and met regularly with Assistant Dean of Freshman Philip A. Bean and his hall proctor.

Wilkes stayed through freshman year and entered again as a sophomore, his mandatory therapy over. Throughout the entire semester, he says, he received no contact from Harvard administrators or tutors regarding his mental health. Wilkes never heard from Bean and, even after he sent his former proctor an e-mail asking to meet, she never contacted him.

“I don’t know if it was because I was a sophomore, or they thought I was better, but there was no contact at all between me and any of those people who had been in contact with me before,” Wilkes says. “I really didn’t feel like I could go to those people like before...what was the point of talking to them, they don’t give a shit.”

By the middle of spring semester, Wilkes’ depression had escalated. He left school, returning almost a year later for the spring 2003 semester. But Wilkes says coming back to Harvard aggravated his depression almost immediately when he was placed in a double with a roommate whose friends used homophobic slurs.

As he grew more anxious and depressed, Wilkes began doing illegal drugs. He read a book on euthanasia to learn what type of pills to use to kill himself, and ordered the pills online.

“I gave up on school. I was sick of dealing with depression, being gay, homophobia—I decided to kill myself,” Wilkes says. “I had to wait a long time for the pills, and I was just going more and more downhill.”