Students Reach For Help in Vain

College advisers inconsistent in responses to mental health problems

The board’s 2001 annual report stated that the brochure was “highly acclaimed,” and that UHS reported a spike in student visits soon after its distribution.

But the “Caring for the Harvard Community” events were optional and members of the teaching staff receive no formal, mandated training about how to help students concerned about their mental health.

“I can tell you what training we receive—none,” says Levin Professor of Literature William M. Todd III, chair of the Department of Comparative Literature.

Todd says he relies on common sense to determine how to address students’ mental health problems, and usually refers them to proctors or senior tutors.

Associate Professor of Government Barry C. Burden says professors receive literature about the University’s mental health resources and how to help students with mental health concerns in academic settings.



Burden says that it is common for students to come to him with mental health-related academic concerns, and he says he also tries to direct students to residential advisers.

“The most common path is to talk to the student indirectly through their senior tutor, because the student probably feels more comfortable talking through their senior tutor, and the tutors usually have a better grasp of the situation and options,” Burden says.

Some students say that making information available is not enough to teach academic and residential advisers how to approach a student about mental health.

“It’s sometimes hard because it’s like teaching a course in compassion,” says MHAAG secretary Andrew L. Kalloch ’06.

Hyman says that the administration is wary of mandating mental health training for professors.

“I would welcome any professor who would want to learn about this, but I don’t think you would want your biology professor to be coming up to you in an academic setting, and saying you look kind of glum in lab,” Hyman says. “I have nothing against providing information, but I think our major targets have got to be students and those House life.”

Outgoing Undergraduate Council President Rohit Chopra ’04 says the current drive by Summers’ administration to emphasize academics could move the University farther from a compassionate stance towards mental health-related academic problems.

“The direction of the University is getting more intense, not more focused on student life, so I worry that we’re not looking to students’ well-being,” says Chopra, who has focused on improving mental health services this semester. “Healthier and happy students will affect more change in the world than people who haven’t had good experiences here.”

Prioritizing academics to the detriment of other facets of student life can seriously hurt students who feel they must fulfill academic goals and ignore other concerns, Quinn says.

“This is a place that for whatever reason compartmentalizes a student’s academic life from residential life from health life, and they are seen as students first and people second,” Quinn says. “As soon as you have mental health problems it starts taking over your entire life, and if there’s no one to communicate to in the academic portion of life—it’s really isolating.”

In the end, she says, students with mental health problems often sacrifice their academic performance.

“You [only] take care of one part or the other,” Quinn says.

—Staff writer Katharine A. Kaplan can be reached at