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Up to 31 Percent of Harvard Graduate Students Report Struggles with Depression, Anxiety in Survey of Four Departments

GSAS's Dudley House
Lehman Hall is the main building for the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Graduate students in four Faculty of Arts and Sciences programs reported rates of depression climbing as high as 31 percent — a figure more than six times the national average — according to results from a recently completed round of mental health surveys.

Harvard University Health Services developed the questionnaires in collaboration with students studying Earth and Planetary Sciences, Physics, Integrative Life Sciences, and Economics, HUHS Director Paul J. Barreira wrote in an email Thursday. Though students at Harvard Law School filled out a similar survey, Barreira did not include their responses in the aggregate results.

This study marks the second time that Economics graduate students have filled out surveys about their mental health in recent years. HUHS first sampled them two years ago in a survey that revealed many within their ranks experience symptoms of depression and anxiety. Graduate students in the other three programs joined this year’s study after they reached out to Barreira.

Across the four departments, the percentage of students who reported symptoms — whether occasional or recurring — ranged from 15 to 31 percent for depression and 14.7 to 31 percent for anxiety. Within those groups, between 5.4 and 12 percent reported moderate to severe depression and between 6.6 and 14 percent reported moderate to severe anxiety.

Barreira declined to tether individual data points to specific departments, and did not give all four percentages for each category of the survey. Instead, he provided a range containing the highest and lowest reported rates for each question. In an email, he wrote that revealing more specific data could compromise the privacy of survey respondents, though he added more detailed results may become public if an institutional review board subsequently approves the study.

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The results of the first Economics survey spurred a national study, which came out this month and found that 18 percent of 500 Economics Ph.D. students across eight schools experience “moderate or severe” symptoms of depression or anxiety. Eleven percent said they have recently experienced suicidal thoughts.

The first 11 questions of the HUHS survey measured metrics including depression, anxiety, loneliness, and self-esteem. Each department included additional questions designed to gather data about topics like advising, lab experience, and “the learning environment,” according to Barreira.

Barreira said in an interview Thursday that he saw evidence of a “stigma problem” in the data — the survey showed that some students who reported severe mental health concerns are “not considering getting treatment.”

Multiple departments are taking steps to address students’ mental health in response to survey results. Earth and Planetary Sciences Professor David T. Johnston wrote in an email that his department has formed a committee of graduate students to “lead the charge” on mental health. The Integrative Life Sciences department has held a series of town halls to discuss the survey results, according to an email sent by director Grace B. Gill. After the first round of surveys in the Economics department, a group of graduate students started a peer advising program.

Johnston wrote that he thinks the survey could make graduate students’ mental health struggles more concrete.

“Without a formal survey in place prior to this most recent effort, the discussion at the faculty level was simply about what we see and hear, both directly and indirectly,” he wrote. “One of the great things about the new initiative by HUHS to conduct such surveys is that we can both learn from, and potentially team up with, sister departments to try and make our Harvard community a healthier and happier one.”

As the survey expands to more departments next semester, Barreira said he hopes to keep the format relatively similar to the one used this semester. Classics, Romance Languages and Literature, Sociology, and Philosophy number among the departments whose graduate students will receive the next round of questionnaires.

—Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah can be reached at shera.avi-yonah@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @saviyonah.

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