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Harvard Provost Office Introduces Mental Health Task Force

Massachusetts Hall, Fall 2017

Harvard’s Office of the Provost has created a new task force on managing student mental health that plans to evaluate and respond to an increase of reported mental health issues on campus, the University announced Tuesday.

The task force — which consists of more than 40 social science and medical experts; undergraduate and graduate students; graduate student union members; and administrators — will assess how social, academic, and institutional problems at Harvard can influence student mental health. They will also examine various methods of care for mental health issues.

This announcement comes at a time when Harvard’s mental health services continue to face long wait times and understaffing. Despite new hiring, Counseling and Mental Health Services’ staff, which consists of 50 mental health professionals, are often overwhelmed by the number of students seeking to book appointments.

Harvard received a failing grade in a study about Ivy League colleges’ leave of absence policies that critiqued protocols mandating a minimum length for leaves and setting a strict deadline for applications to return.

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Sociology Professor Mario L. Small, who is heading the task force, said the group’s diversity of professional backgrounds and identities will aid them as they gather data and formulate final conclusions and recommendations

“We're going to be deploying the skills of all of these people to try to see what we can do about this,” Small said.

Small said the task force comprises two working groups centered on both undergraduate and graduate students. Psychology Professor Matthew K. Nock chairs the undergraduate working group, and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Emma Dench chairs the graduate and professional school working group.

Small said the task force will work with data collected from surveys from previous years as well as interviews and focus groups with students, faculty, and staff about these issues.

Both Nock and Dench noted that the working groups — one of which met for the first time in March — have seen “extraordinarily good attendance.”

“In all the meeting so far, it's been striking how invested our whole community is in this issue,” Dench said.

Dench also noted that the graduate student working groups will concentrate in “a very urgent and focused way” on gathering more data, especially for students outside of GSAS.

In a HUHS survey released in November, graduate students in four Faculty of Arts and Sciences programs reported rates of depression as high as 31 percent, more than six times the national average. Harvard Law School students filled out a similar survey at the time, but the results of the survey have yet to be released. Last Thursday, Law School students hung posters during admitted students weekend calling on administrators to release all of the findings of the survey.

Small said the task force intends to publish a report available to the entire University about trends in data collected as well as methods for outreach.

“The idea is to make this report open to the public,” Small said. “And the more people are thinking about these issues, the more people know what we've been doing.”

Nock said the task force also hopes to address the stigma surrounding mental health issues on university campuses.

“The more students are aware of what the rates of these things are and the more the faculty are aware of what the rates of these things are, the better prepared we are to address these things and take action,” Nock said.

—Staff writer Alexandra A. Chaidez can be reached at alexandra.chaidez@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @a_achaidez.

—Staff writer Aidan F. Ryan can be reached at aidan.ryan@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @AidanRyanNH.

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