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Task Force on Student Mental Health Engages Community Perspectives

Last winter, University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 asked us to lead a task force on student mental health at Harvard. We readily agreed, as each of us has noticed in our respective roles that many of our students grapple with emotional and psychosocial distress. According to the most recent National College Health Assessment by the American College Health Association, 45 percent of students reported having felt so depressed within the last 12 months that it was difficult to function, and almost 66 percent reported having felt overwhelming anxiety within the same time period — numbers that have risen steadily over the past decade. It’s also no secret that universities in general, and Harvard in particular, are high-stress environments that attract people who are high-achieving, and who often have become so at great personal sacrifice.

With the 45 undergraduates, graduate students, faculty members, and administrators who constitute the task force, we began in February to examine how Harvard should address the academic, social, and institutional issues that affect student mental health. Starting last May, we began convening focus groups to hear directly from undergraduate, graduate, and professional students, faculty members across multiple schools, and staff at all levels of the institution. We asked countless questions about how students and others perceived the scope of the problem, which resources and policies were effective, which did more harm than good, and how Harvard could do better.

In addition, the task force has been analyzing several surveys fielded across Harvard’s schools. The College has been systematically surveying its incoming freshman students about mental health issues since 2010, and Harvard University Health Services has included questions about student mental health on its biennial health and well-being survey since 2012. We’ve taken a close look at the results of these surveys, as well as at data from the Graduate Student Mental Health Survey Initiative, led by Harvard University Health Services Director Paul J. Barreira, and other sources of data, to inform our thinking about the state of student mental health at Harvard and what changes might help improve the well-being of our students.

We have learned a great deal. For example, many undergraduates feel perpetually overwhelmed, yearn for more meaningful relationships, or find extracurriculars to be yet another source of competition, rather than relief. Many graduate students feel profound isolation, experience financial hardship, worry about the relationship to their advisers, or remain unsure about their academic and career prospects. Many students of color, and BGLTQ, international, and low-income students, wonder how much the institution considers their concerns central to its mission. And many students at all levels are not entirely sure how, when, and where to go for help with potential mental health concerns.

The task force continues its work. We are conducting additional focus groups, continuing to gather and analyze survey and administrative data, and examining the mental health policies at Harvard and our peer institutions. We intend to make full use of the range of perspectives and talents represented on the task force, whose diverse membership includes psychologists, sociologists, and psychiatrists, poets and biologists, therapists, deans and administrators, students from across the University, and people of multiple economic, gender, race, national, and ethnic backgrounds. We aim to draw on our collective experience to cultivate the most supportive environment we can for everyone at Harvard.

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For the progress we have made to date, we thank the Harvard community. As our work continues, we ask that you keep sharing your thoughts with us. If you have comments, questions, concerns, an issue you believe no one has heard, or a perspective on mental health that we should take into account, please be in touch with us.

Your point of view is vital to our work.

Emma Dench is Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Professor of Ancient and Modern History, and of the Classics, and Chair of the Task Force’s Working Group on Graduate and Professional Students. Matthew K. Nock is a Professor of Psychology and Chair of the Task Force’s Working Group on Undergraduate Students. Mario L. Small is a Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Task Force on Managing Student Mental Health.

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