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The Harvard Condition Reexamined

At Harvard, perfection often feels like the norm. But for many students, under the veneer of confidence and accomplishment lies something darker. In a bubble that often seems to be defined by awards and achievements looms what current Crimson president Mariel A. Klein ’17 termed the Harvard Condition. The expression refers to “the appearance of normalcy but the reality of distress.” In her scrutiny, Klein explored the problem of mental illness on campus, and identified challenges that students with mental health problems face while at Harvard.

It is important to focus on how Harvard as an institution can do a better job addressing mental illness. The University must continue to assure students that University Health Services responds appropriately to those who seek treatment for their mental illnesses—by quickly scheduling consultations, and by following up with students after visits and meetings. But Harvard has a far greater responsibility than simply ensuring that students in need of help receive appropriate care. Harvard faculty and staff must make more of an effort to address how and why so many students are struggling with mental illness in the first place.

Many students who experience mental health problems cite alienation as a core contributor to their disorders. This intense loneliness is often experienced by freshmen, most of whom are without strong support on campus when they are forced to quickly acclimate to college life. Though Peer Advising Fellows (PAFs)—undergraduate mentors matched with students during their freshman year—play a critical role in helping freshmen smoothly transition to life at Harvard, they are merely undergraduate students themselves. These upperclassmen are too often unable to help freshmen with the challenges they face; in fact, many PAFs suffer from the same feelings of loneliness and mental health problems that their advisees experience.

It also seems unlikely that many of the current proctors and advisers can truly meet students’ needs, as a number lack the experience, knowledge, and time needed to deal with the many problems that students face. There are too many stories of academic advisers who told their advisees that they knew virtually nothing about academics at Harvard. There are too many students interested in the humanities who were paired with an over committed engineering graduate student who had little time, interest, or insight to provide to the student. And there are too many students who met individually with their academic adviser or proctor only once or twice throughout their entire freshman year.

Harvard must do a better job of matching students with mentors with whom they can form relationships and receive guidance, especially during their freshman year. There are many ways Harvard could address this issue. One way would be to guarantee that the freshman advisers are more experienced mentors who have the time and knowledge to help students. Harvard staff members could also work harder to ensure that students are matched with advisers whose academic interests align with the students’ interests. Furthermore, instead of requiring a student and adviser to meet solely before study card day, all advisers could be required to meet with their freshman advisees a set number of times throughout the year.

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If students were paired with more senior advisers who could provide greater guidance, especially academically, they would feel less alone when adjusting to college life, and would perhaps face far fewer problems. When freshmen enter Princeton, for example, they are given a faculty adviser in the department in which they indicate interest. Once students declare a major, they are paired with a new faculty advisor from the department in which they are majoring. Harvard could draw upon this model to craft a new advising system that more thoroughly addresses the needs of its students.

Too often, college students make the mistake of already viewing themselves as adults. But the reality is that we’re not adults. We need help: We need more experienced adults who have perspectives that we cannot possibly have in our late teens and early twenties, and who have the time, interest, and knowledge to help us navigate Harvard and its challenges. We need mentors who are there to help us solve problems that may arise, academically and otherwise, so that we know we are not alone. Perhaps then we will be moving one step forward in addressing the mental illness epidemic that is raging across our campus.

Rachel E. Huebner ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, is a psychology concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

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