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Counseling Resources Stretched Thin

By Sung Kwang Oh
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

One-on-one peer counseling was among many campus staples lost when in-person instruction ceased this March. The days when any undergrad could head to a dorm basement to receive individual counseling from a trained peer are gone, but Harvard’s specialized peer counseling groups are trying to adapt and still offer services. After Harvard's Counseling and Mental Health Services suspended peer counseling sessions during the spring, multiple peer counseling groups have decided to team up to offer group therapy sessions this semester. A trio of peer counseling groups —Harvard Eating Concerns Hotline and Outreach, Indigo, and Response — have decided to join forces to offer more generalized virtual group counseling sessions, citing meaningful “overlap” in their counseling focuses.

First and foremost, our peers deserve credit for working to provide mental health support for undergraduates during these unprecedented times. The state of mental health was already fraught at Harvard, with survey data from recent years showing levels of depression and anxiety well above the national average. For many, these issues have been heightened by the crises of 2020 (take your pick). Being away from campus may mean students are cut off from the resources and community that’d normally help them through these challenges — making what these groups are doing all the more important.

Still, we have concerns about collapsing the distinct functions of these counseling groups into each other. It seems plausible that ECHO (a group that specializes in eating and body image concerns), Indigo (a group focused on how your race, class, citizenship status, sexuality, and any other identity affects mental health), and Response (a group centered around any and all relationship issues) have overlap in the issues they address. But normally, they do serve students with distinct concerns for a reason: specialized care. We worry that their ability to cater to those particular students may be insufficient in a more generalized group format.

We’re struck by the potential pitfalls of only offering group counseling. For instance, groups that deal with sensitive personal information like gender identity or sexual orientation will have to contend with fears and the real risk of students being “outed” in this group format. More generally, in any of these group sessions deeply personal experiences will come up. Sharing potentially unrelatable experiences to a group may be intimidating: previously, a student coming to ECHO for a one-on-one session knew that discussing say, disordered eating, wouldn’t throw their counselor for a loop given the counseling service’s focus. Now, there’s no such guarantee — your psyche and struggles are privy to whoever shows up for the general session. Alternatively, in a group session someone might share stories that prove too relatable. Unexpectedly triggering unwanted or traumatizing memories is another risk of the group-only format.

A strength of peer counseling services was their ability to offer anonymity and confidentiality to those seeking mental health care. The death of one-on-one peer counseling leaves a gap in truly anonymous and individualized campus mental health care. Knowing that confidentiality is not guaranteed can serve as a deterrent to seeking care at all, and we worry this gap may leave students without care they’re comfortable seeking. Ultimately, the fact that, this year of all years, Harvard actually has less mental health offerings than usual seems disastrous: students need all the help they can get!

Things being as they are, we encourage students to explore local mental health resources outside of Harvard’s system. We wish campus resources were strong enough that we didn’t have to, but there may be mental health care that works for you available wherever you’ve landed this semester. Since Harvard’s resources are even more limited than usual right now, if you’re able to, consider looking elsewhere. Above all, seek care however you can and wherever you’re most comfortable.

This has been a challenging time for so many. We’re sure 2020’s strain is also felt by our classmates who have taken up the noble task of peer counseling. We appreciate their work and anticipate the return of normal peer counseling after their spring suspension. However, mashing separate specialty groups together and offering only group counseling is a path strewn with pitfalls.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

Clarification: A previous version of this article did not include context that Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services suspended its peer counseling services in April. This article has been updated accordingly.

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