Medical School Takes Steps to Clarify Mental Health Policies

After a 2016 survey revealed that 20 percent of third-year Harvard Medical School students had experienced recent thoughts of suicide or self-harm, the Medical School is taking steps to clarify its policies relating to students’ mental health and clarify stigmas around it.

In an interview Wednesday, Medical School Dean of Students Fidencio Saldana said administrators are taking a “multi-pronged approach” to widespread concerns about mental health at the Medical School.

For one, Saldana said, a Wellness and Mental Health Task Force is currently gathering best practices and formulating plans to improve the Medical School’s culture around mental health. Working with University Health Services director Paul J. Barreira and Chief of Counseling and Mental Health Services Barbara Lewis, Saldana said that Medical School is focusing on prevention and structural improvements to “promote wellness,” including making the first two years of training pass/fail for students in the new curriculum.

Harvard Medical School
A Medical School building pictured in 2015.
The student-conducted March 2016 survey on mental health at the Medical School found that one in five students screened positive for depression, and only one in five of those students reported that they had been treated.

“Even if the numbers [of the survey] aren’t perfect, that problem still exists,” Saldana said. “We need to take that to heart and I feel like we are doing our best to really improve the resources available here for mental health in the Medical School.”

According to mental health advocates at school, some may be reluctant to seek treatment because the Medical School Promotion and Review Board—which can require a student to withdraw or recommend expulsion—can take mental health into account while considering student cases.


Saldana said that he acknowledges a higher mental risk among physicians and trainees due to the stressful nature of the medical profession, but said that mental health information is only used during student evaluations with the consent of the student.

“Any myth like that can undo the positive that we are trying to do,” Saldana said. “Records are never shared without the consent of a student, and mental health issues are not arbitrarily discussed.”

Saldana also helped launch the “Sharing Struggles and Building Resilience” series of talks in November 2016, featuring Medical School faculty and students who discuss their experiences with failure. Saldana said he was “proud” of the initiative, which has “gone a long way in trying to change the culture a little bit.”

“A lot of us have struggles that may range from the usual stress to mental health issues, and that is a part of our world,” Saldana said “We hope to continue those kind of initiatives to try to normalize the idea that nobody goes through life perfect.”

—Staff writer William L. Wang can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @wlwang20.

—Staff writer Alexis J. Ross can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @aross125.


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