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Op-Eds

Are there serious deficiencies with Harvard's mental health services?

By Madeline Holland, Michele LoBianco, Rishab Mehan, and Li Murphy

This is the fifth instalment in a series of online-only Roundtables. This new content form from the Crimson Editorial Board seeks to present a diverse array of high-quality student opinion on thought-provoking issues.

If you would like to submit an opinion for this week's Roundtable topic "Does Harvard place enough value on academics?" please e-mail your 200-300 word opinion to hpickerell@college.harvard.edu before Wednesday, March 6th at 11pm.

A Shortage of Listening

Experiences with mental health difficulties are inherently, intensely personal. To make sweeping claims about mental health is very dangerous. There is a danger of isolating people on all sides of the discussion—those who work hard to provide care to our community can feel attacked by blanket criticism, and those who endure a very real struggle with mental health challenges can feel invalidated and uncared for.

As a Student Mental Health Liaison, the privilege I have had of working with students and administrators has left me knowing quite confidently that there are by no means “serious” deficiencies with Harvard’s mental health services. I make such a strong claim not to undermine the voices of those who disagree with me, but because it is a reality that whenever we need it, and to whatever degree we need it, we have support available to us. There are 24-hour emergency services, all manner of counseling options, psychiatric treatments, caring tutors and proctors, peer counselors, peer educators and much more. It is essential that our discussion about mental health not leave members of our community reluctant to seek help or to suffer alone.

Last week’s events showed us, however, that a lot of students feel like mental health services need improvement. Those feelings and opinions are, of course, valid. They are founded on real experiences and real concerns. There must, then, be some deficiencies—to me, those deficiencies are primarily in the listening and understanding in this dialogue.  Again, my experience tells me there is certainly a will to listen and understand. The “liaison” in Student Mental Health Liaisons exists to do this. Somewhere, voices have not been heard and concerns have not been understood. Students and the administration alike should listen actively and take each other’s concerns seriously. Only by understanding both sides can we come to understand the realities of the mental health experience at Harvard.

Rishab Mehan ’14 is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. He is a Student Mental Health Liaison and a former co-director of Room13.

Mental Health: Awareness, Community, and Change

Are there serious deficiencies with Harvard's mental health services? Absolutely.  Anyone who has sought help knows about the agonizing delays.  In frustration, many look outside the Harvard system for treatment and help, and even then they face weeks-long waiting lists.  These delays put lives at risk, and the University must make changes.  But while we push for change, we, the students, must find ways to help ourselves.

Mental health awareness is one of the worst problems at the world’s best university.  Except when a tragedy occurs, mental health is never discussed in a positive manner.  These conversations are not easy, but the administration seems paralyzed by the difficulties involved with dispelling myths, providing access to support and treatment, and eliminating the stigma surrounding mental health issues.

When we discovered that neither the Harvard Kennedy School nor the School of Public Health offered any classes on mental health initiatives, a group of concerned graduate students created a movement that we are calling the Harvard Students’ Mental Health Initiative.  At the same time, the College’s recent rally on mental health and ensuing dialogue ignited a vitally important campus dialogue.  As a unified student body, it is time to start working together to create change that meets our needs rather than waiting for the University to force a solution on us.

Our initiative is open to every student—graduates and undergraduates alike.  We all know someone who needs our support.  The HSMHI seeks to initiate and develop innovative solutions for positive change and to create a network where we can rely on each other for fundamental support.  Together, we can insist on a positive, supportive, community-based approach that brings together supportive networks and pro-social connectedness to our student body.

The time to act is now.  We hope you will join us. Our Facebook page can be found here.

Michele LoBianco is a Mid-Career Master in Public Administration candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is the chairman of the Harvard Students Mental Health Initiative.

Say Sayonara to Self-Censorship

“You’re not alone.” It was the first message I found funky when I arrived on campus three years ago. I saw it in the bathroom stall, at exactly eye level as I took my very first squat at my brand new university. Imagine, within the first 15 minutes on campus, with my trousers round my ankles in a bathroom stall, Harvard was telling me that I was “not alone.”  I scoffed out loud that day. I giggled about the implication of security cameras being used in bathrooms to monitor the bowel movements of Harvard’s newly recruited future world leaders.

It was my first encounter with Harvard University’s unique panoptic pressurizing effect, something we might as well call the “System to Increase Anal Retentiveness Among Undergraduates” (S.I.Ana.R.A.-U., pronounced “sayonara you”). Did I say goodbye to myself that first day I arrived at school?  Unfortunately, yes, to some parts I did. I said, sorry, I can’t bring my pet ostrich with me to college. I said, sorry, I can’t bring my inefficient high school study habits. I said, sorry, I can’t bring weak sauce to this place of greatness. But this last apology was one I should never have made. Self-censorship is a cardinal no-no in self-care. If I had known this starting that first day in the bathroom stall, my conversations with friends and new classmates at Harvard would have been more open from the get-go.

This brings me to my main point. The first stage in making a difference in your own personal mental health and to those around you is open conversation. Like this one. Are there serious institutional deficiencies with Harvard’s mental health services? Are there serious deficiencies with nation-wide mental health services? These questions are posed to stimulate an incredible discussion and make moves that will save sleepless nights and possibly people’s lives. Just because questions seem big, this does not mean that we are powerless to answer them with local interpersonal changes every day. It’s a matter of making real talk. Try not to succumb to “SIAnaRA,” that septic system of self-deprecation and looking anxiously to the high achievers to the left and right. We are not in a diploma factory. We are given the opportunity to get to know incredible people when we offer to share our experiences, struggles, and joys with our peers. Forget “sayonara,” it’s time to think “konichiwa, hello, howdy, bonjour.” The Beatles had it right: Why say goodbye when we can say hello to new experiences, to alternative ways of feeling good about ourselves, to new friends, to new frames of mind, to alternative viewpoints, and always to the idea that every one of our peers has something surprising to share.

Li Murphy ’15 is an organismic and evolutionary biology major in Quincy House. She is a member of Student Mental Health Liaisons.

Mending

Sometimes, when talking about mental illness, we talk about “slipping through the cracks.” It means to get lost or to be forgotten; to escape notice, especially within a system.  It is not a perfect analogy, but maybe it is helpful for thinking about mental health in our system. We don’t talk about "falling out the drain." Drains would be easier to clog. These are cracks, and they are unruly. Some are gaping while others are fine and hard to see. Where are the cracks? When someone is denied access to care they need. When someone is told they do not need the care they are seeking. When someone could use services that exist but does not know it. When someone knows they do but never calls. When someone feels like there is no one here with a vested interest in them. When someone thinks the future looks pale and empty and always will. These are all cracks.

I do not know yet how to stop up all of the cracks, but I have the sense that they will have to go one by one and that any extra hands will help. Knowing what services do exist at Harvard and using them when we need to is a start. We should talk with administrators about those cracks we see. We should be honest with one another when we could use help. We should rethink the advising system. And we should remind one another when hope is wavering that people can and do feel better, that mental illness is not a life sentence, that we will stick around until the future’s looking bright and full again.

Madeline Holland ’15 is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. She is a Student Mental Health Liaison.

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