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A Culture of Caring

By Paul J. Barreira, Steven E. Hyman, and Matthew L. Sundquist

Even in a sophisticated community like Harvard, it is all too easy to misunderstand mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, eating issues, and the like. Students dealing with these common, but often serious issues, sometimes feel that they have to go it alone because getting help is an unacceptable sign of weakness. This week represents an exciting opportunity for the entire campus to change the occasionally justified belief that Harvard is a place where students don’t watch out for one another.

In the event of mental health issues, the well-being of our friends and housemates should never be ignored on account of the fact that students feel there is no support system in place to help them overcome their problems. Sometimes it only takes an empathetic friend who is willing to listen and share their experiences to make a huge difference is one person’s life. The peer counseling groups, Community Health Initiative (CHI), Drug and Alcohol Peer Advisor (DAPA), student mental health liaisons, and the Mental Health Advocacy and Awareness Group all provide very valuable resources and support to students. We should all appreciate the efforts of students and administrators in staffing these groups and providing these supportive services to the community. But, in order to actually alter the culture of mental health awareness on campus, it will require everyone to accept a share of responsibility to provide a more caring community.

Harvard has often been caricatured as a cold and unforgiving school if you are struggling with emotional problems. In that caricature, getting help represents failure. These misperceptions don’t reflect the reality that nearly 50 percent of graduating seniors have taken advantage of counseling or mental health services on or off campus at least once during their years here. The perception that people who seek help are weak detracts from ongoing efforts on behalf of a number of people and organizations to improve mental health services on campus.

There are numerous peer counseling groups and mental health resources available on campus for those who are willing to seek them. When all is said and done though, each individual in the community must be willing to educate him or herself about mental health and be willing to take the initiative to care for their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of the community. Developing a caring campus, in part, depends on recognizing how excessive stress can be debilitating to individuals and then our entire community. In multiple surveys our students repeatedly report that stress is the major impediment to academic performance. Indeed, surveys consistently show that almost 50 percent of students feel overwhelmed in a way that has interfered with their academic work at some time during the past year. Only by developing a caring attitude towards each other and being willing to care for our own well-being will we be able to address and improve the culture surrounding this issue on campus.

Developing a caring campus, in part, depends on educating ourselves about common mental health problems—such as depression and anxiety—and how effectively they can be helped. Pamphlets, panel discussions, counseling, and therapy are all available for anyone willing to seek out these resources. Medications can be prescribed to students in need of them. Simply ignoring a serious problem can serve to make it worse, particularly at a school as demanding as Harvard, where work can pile up and become overwhelming when combined with already existing mental health issues. There is 24-hour support available from UHS, and a number of the counseling groups offer hours accommodating to student schedules. Room 13, Echo, CHI, DAPA, Student Mental Health Liaisons and a number of other groups offer support and counseling to students in unobtrusive ways. Numerous undergraduates sacrifice countless hours volunteering to be on call and provide support and advice for students who need someone to talk to. These caring students and the services provided by University Health Services (UHS) should not be written off—they truly provide a phenomenal service to the community.

UHS has a patient advocate for anyone who feels they have not received optimal treatment during their visit, and they also recently placed students on the College advisory board. Most recently, they have provided information regarding off-campus mental health specialists, and also clarified the policy regarding the number of visits available to students seeking mental health care—if any question persists, there is no 12-session limit. All of these resources and efforts are invaluable to the community.

One of our hopes is that initiatives like Mental Health Week will rectify the misperception of mental health at Harvard and lead to real changes down the road. We believe that students are ready to change that perception and their commitment to this initiative and others demonstrates their desire to characterize the College as a caring and supportive community.

Paul J. Barreira is the director of behavioral health and academic counseling for Harvard University Health Services. Steven E. Hyman, M.D. is provost of Harvard University. Matthew L. Sundquist ’09 is a junior philosophy concentrator in Mather House. He is president of the Undergraduate Council.

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