Putting Harvard to the Stress Test

But she is not here to study. Armed with lollipops, earplugs, and colorful notes with uplifting messages, this student mental health liaison has come to engage students in non-academic conversations, if even for a moment.

“I really enjoy it,” she says. “I love seeing their reactions. They are all eyebrows furrowed, but then they smile, and it’s truly nice.”

This mobile study break, as Aguasvivas describes it, is just one initiative SMHL puts on during high-pressure testing periods. Founded in 2008 by Barreira, then the director of behavioral health and academic counseling for UHS, SMHL aims to educate students about mental health resources at Harvard.

The group sponsors depression screenings in dining halls, guest speakers, and occasional free massages. This year, SMHL introduced mandatory freshman workshops which present real Harvard students’ stories about the stresses of life at Harvard and run through the mental health resources available to undergraduates.

In the spring, SMHL plans to launch a video, with funding from the College and the help of a professional videographer, based on the popular LGBT-focused “It Gets Better” series.“


The college environment is a tough place. We want students to know that people have struggled and sought help and gotten better, and that that is a normal route,” says SMHL co-president Seth H. Cassel ’13.

Cassel credits Harvard’s peer counseling groups, like Room 13, Response, and Eating Concerns Hotline and Outreach, with providing most of the daily one-on-one support for students.

“There is this whole peer counseling community that is fantastic,” he says. “And honestly, they’re an underutilized resource.”

Alexa, who suffers from bipolar disorder, says that Harvard programs outside of UHS have frequently helped her. “I have found Harvard to be an extraordinarily nurturing environment,” she says.

Mackenzie, who has battled PTSD and depression, credits the Harvard College Queer Students and Allies community for supporting her socially during her time at Harvard.

“People in the LGBT community have struggled with these issues,” she says. “It’s been important to have those conversations in a safe space.”


“I don’t even want to be a doctor anymore...but I don’t have that luxury because I am poor, a minority, female, and first generation,” one anonymous Harvard student confides over Tumblr. “I’m at Harvard—that should be good enough, right? Well, I don’t feel good enough. I feel like I should go to UHS right now to prevent myself from failing 2 of my classes with assignments due in a few hours, but I don’t even have the energy to get out of my room.”

Another writes of having no real friends at Harvard. “I want to have a kind of friendship where it’s more than a few meals and just a group get-together once a month or so. But at the same time, I’m so tired of putting in any effort into my relationships,” the writer shares.

One student currently on a semester abroad posts, “I’m going through the same patterns of stress, depression, self-loathing as before and feel even more pressure to succeed here. My professors, classmates, and host family know I am from Harvard, and everyone knows Harvard, but when the Harvard kid is falling apart mentally and other students are not, it makes people wonder if that student is really from Harvard.”


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