Seeking Help Without Shame

At a place like Harvard, where the pressure to perform can seem overpowering, it is easy to feel alone. Every day, we, like millions of other college students around the country, encounter challenges to our sense of self esteem and peace of mind, and we must find ways to overcome these obstacles. Psychological research consistently tells us that one of the best ways to work through such difficulties is to share them—to talk it over with a friend or counselor or to simply ask for help when we feel overwhelmed.

This, however, is where the real challenge arises. Whenever or wherever it strikes, emotional distress has an uncanny ability to make us feel isolated, inadequate, and somehow weaker than other people. Combine this feeling with the emphasis on self-sufficiency that is so common among Harvard students, and you have a recipe for silent suffering: not only do we feel like we have no recourse for help, but we feel ashamed to need that help in the first place.

At first glance, the mental health situation at Harvard can seem unsettling. In a 2007 survey of student attitudes toward campus mental health services, 44 percent of polled students reported that they had felt like they needed mental health care at some point during the last year, but did not seek it. The top three reasons for refraining included: negative expectations about the effects of assistance, feelings of being too busy to seek or receive care, and feelings of stigma or shame about needing help. This statistic is unsettling for a number of reasons, but the most striking of these is its sheer magnitude. A startlingly high percentage of students experience severe emotional distress and yet feel compelled to forgo professional help.

Equally unsettling are the justifications that students offer for their decisions. The truth is that the most common mental health problems faced by students are, in fact, highly treatable. Moreover, in many cases there are multiple ways to address a given problem—meaning that treatment is also highly flexible and efficient. Much of the stigma and shame that students feel when they struggle with emotional distress comes from the widely held belief that their experience is uncommon. In reality, emotional distress is very common among college students, including those who go to Harvard. In a recent survey of student well-being, 45 percent of Harvard students reported that, at some point during the last year, they had felt so depressed that they found it difficult to function in their day-to-day activities.

These findings are both troubling and informative. Again we are confronted with the staggering number of students who experience severe, debilitating emotional distress at some point during their college years. At the same time, however, this finding conveys an important message about the inconsistency of the culture of shame that often accompanies a student’s struggle with emotional distress at Harvard. With almost half of the student body having experienced functionally significant depressive feelings, emotional distress is anything but uncommon and certainly not the result of personal weakness or inadequacy.

Nevertheless, students often feel shame about seeking help. While each person’s reasons for this feeling of shame may vary, it is likely that much of this stigma can be attributed to a general feeling that seeking professional help for issues related to mental health is uncommon at Harvard. Once again, the numbers tell quite a different story. By the time they graduate, 40 percent of Harvard students will have sought and received services from Mental Health Services or the Bureau of Study Counsel. And yet, students who are struggling with emotional distress or who are accessing services for the first time often feel terribly alone in their plight.

Rectifying this unfortunate situation is not as difficult as some might think. First, we can (and should) begin to break the silence that has stifled productive discussion of mental health issues within our community. The aim of Mental Health Week is to share knowledge about issues of mental health, to stress the importance of students’ mental and emotional well-being, and to encourage students to reach out to friends in distress. If real change is to be made, however, we must incorporate this same culture of open discussion and caring into the everyday fabric of Harvard life.

At a more tangible level, we can also work to simplify and ease the process of seeking help for students experiencing distress. Harvard provides by-appointment mental health services through UHS and the BSC, as well as 24-hour urgent care for students who need more immediate help than the appointment process can provide. In addition, students from Harvard’s peer counseling groups—Room 13, ECHO, Response, Contact, PCC—and the Student Mental Health Liaison program work to create a safe space for discussing mental health issues and can help students locate and access appropriate mental health resources and professional services.

As we look toward the future of mental health quality and care at Harvard, the vision is not one of despair but rather of hope. Of course, an unsettling percentage of our classmates experience severe emotional distress, and yes, a significant number of these students feel too ashamed to reach out for help. Yet by actively working to reduce the stigma surrounding issues of mental health, by looking out for signs of emotional distress in our friends, and by supporting efforts to increase the transparency and accessibility of campus mental health services, we each have the power to improve the state of mental health at Harvard. Together, we can make Harvard a place where each student feels empowered, safe, and, above all, valued as a member of our community.

Lianna Karp ’10 is a psychology concentrator in Lowell House, and is co-director of Room 13 and Malorie Snider ’09 is a biological anthropology concentrator in Mather House, and is co-director of SMHL.