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Mental Health Data Shows Significant Signs of Depression and Anxiety at Harvard

Barreira
Harvard University Health Services Director Paul J. Barreira in his office in the Smith Campus Center.

Harvard students experience significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety than the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s reported national average, according to mental health survey results conducted by Harvard University Health Services in 2017 and 2018.

Outgoing Harvard University Health Services Director Paul J. Barreira said in an interview Tuesday that the mental health surveys included College freshmen, as well as five departments within the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Though the departments have not been delineated named, they span the sciences, humanities, and social sciences. The departments surveyed were numbered 1 to 5 in public documents.

The mental health survey documents provided by HUHS showed that the surveyed graduate departments ranged from a 15 percent to 30 percent prevalence rate of depression, and a 13.2 percent to 30 percent prevalence of anxiety.

HUHS’s report cited that this depression prevalence rate is significantly higher than what the CDC has reported.

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Barreira said the CDC has reported 7.4 percent and 19.1 percent as national rates of depression and anxiety, respectively, for respondents aged 18 years old and older.

The response rate to the graduate student mental health surveys was high, according to Barreira.

“Our response rates by the way, in all these programs are 60 to 70 percent,” he said.

Student mental health was assessed through a survey that included two standard screening tools — the PHQ-9 for depression, and the GAD-7 for anxiety — as well as questions about the learning environment written by graduate student researchers.

The reported rates of depression and anxiety among graduate students surveyed were also significantly higher than those of incoming freshmen, according to Barreira.

Though survey results indicate depression rates and anxiety rates climbing to 30 percent in some departments, incoming freshmen — who were surveyed during their first week at the College — reported depression and anxiety at rates of 7 percent and 8.5 percent, respectively.

The PHQ-9 screens respondents into five categories based on their symptoms, ranging from “minimum” to “severe.” A score of 10 or higher out of 27 on the test is considered a positive screening, and includes participants in the “moderate” group, Barreira said. The GAD-7 follows a similar principle, with scores of 10 or above out of 21 considered a positive screening that indicates at least “moderate” anxiety.

“There's a small percentage of students across the University, just graduate students, who we would want every one of them to be in treatment or at least getting an evaluation,” Barreira said.

Beyond clinical symptoms, the survey data also reveals several other factors that point to student mental health issues, according to Barreira. Among these are high rates of loneliness, feeling like an imposter, and a sense of being overwhelmed.

“It really prompts people to think differently about what's causing the distress that graduate students experience,” Barreira said. “That's where it gets a lot of discussion going.”

To address the mental health surveys, Barreira said he spoke with leaders in the departments he surveyed as well as students. The conversations, however, have remained internal.

“We did this with a commitment that the data is only for us to share between ourselves and our faculty in a confidential way,” he said.

Barreria said in a September 2019 interview with The Crimson that he will focus on the Graduate Student Mental Health Initiative after he steps down from HUHS Director this month.

—Staff writer Michelle Kurilla can be reached at michelle.kurilla@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Tamar Sarig can be reached at tamar.sarig@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @tamar_sarig.

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