Harvard University Health Services Director Paul J. Barreira updated the Faculty Council on the mental health surveys UHS is conducting in concert with graduate students at the Council’s biweekly meeting Wednesday afternoon.
UHS is working with students at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the Law School to develop surveys covering issues of mental health, Barreira and Leah Whitehouse, a research analyst at the Provost’s office, said in a presentation at the meeting. The initiative comes after a survey of Economics graduate students revealed high rates of depression and anxiety in the department.
Each survey was tailored to an individual department and most have seen response rates of above 50 percent, according to Barreira and Whitehouse. Some surveys have earned a response rate of up to 80 percent.
These response rates are extremely high, according to David L. Howell, a council member and professor of Japanese history, who said previous national surveys of graduate students generally received response rates of 10 to 30 percent.
Howell said the success of the surveys is likely due to the fact that UHS is working directly with students to develop questions.
“Bringing the students in as partners in designing the surveys to make the questions relevant for each project and having the student leaders feel invested in the project helps them to encourage their fellow students to respond to the survey,” Howell said.
Ph.D. students in the Economics department reached out to UHS after a previous survey found that the percentage of students reporting “moderate to severe” symptoms of depression or anxiety hovered at 15 percent and 23 percent, respectively. Nationally, approximately 5 percent of the population reports moderate to severe symptoms of depression and anxiety.
UHS then worked with Economics graduate students to create a second survey on mental health issues. It administered the new survey during the 2017-2018 academic year.
Since then, UHS has worked with graduate students from the Law School and several FAS departments — including Earth and Planetary Sciences, Integrative Life Sciences, and Physics — to develop new surveys. Each one contains department-specific questions as well as queries touching on a variety of topics including anxiety, depression, advising, work environment, and social environment.
The results of the surveys revealed differences between the departments, as well as broader trends. In most departments, students who reported feeling connected to others were less likely to also feel depressed or suffer anxiety issues.
Howell said he hopes UHS will eventually reach out to all the departments.
“The results provide an opportunity for graduate students and faculty and staff in the department to talk about how things are, what might be changed,” Howell said. “Being a graduate student is inherently a stressful thing, I think. Having been one myself, it is a stressful system so being aware of mental health issues is critical.”
The Council also voted to approve a proposal from FAS Registrar Michael P. Burke that will allow instructors teaching two-hour classes that start at 12 p.m. or 3 p.m. to delay their course start times by 45 minutes. Burke previously said the most popular class start time is 12 p.m. — and that this made it difficult for students to find time for lunch.
Harvard University Dining Services later extended dining hall hours by 30 minutes to address the issue. The new proposal is meant to further alleviate the problem by giving students more time to eat lunch.
Burke’s proposal earned unanimous support from Council members present at the Wednesday meeting. It will come up for discussion at the November meeting of the full faculty. Though the Council voted to support the proposal, their vote is purely advisory.
The next full meeting of the faculty is Tuesday, Nov. 6.
—Staff writer Angela N. Fu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.