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Harvard Suspends Peer Counseling Services for Remainder of Spring Term

By Juliet E. Isselbacher and Amanda Y. Su

Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services has suspended its peer counseling services through the remainder of the spring term, according to CAMHS chief Barbara Lewis.

CAMHS supervises the College’s five peer counseling groups, many of which are specialized to cater to specific mental health concerns. The five groups offer support for students with concerns pertaining to body image, sexuality, gender, relationships, harassment, race, class, and general mental health.

Peer counseling groups normally work closely with CAMHS supervisors to ensure they are providing “appropriate” care to students on campus, Lewis wrote. The groups have suspended services because they cannot receive such supervision from afar.

“Our primary focus has been and continues to be that students seeking therapy have access to CAMHS services with minimal disruption, no matter where they are located,” Lewis wrote. “With that sentiment as our guiding principle in all that we do, we determined that temporary suspension of peer counseling is the most responsible course of action to maintain student safety.”

Students say the coronavirus pandemic has both exacerbated their preexisting mental health concerns, and generated new ones. Many cited social isolation, sick family members, lost jobs, and abusive households as compounding factors to their existing anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.

In response to the health crisis and undergraduate dispersal, the College reconfigured remote mental health resources offered through CAMHS. Harvard University Health Services emailed affiliates last month with information about its new online offerings, including teletherapy, video-based group therapy, and online resilience workshops.

CAMHS clinicians normally dedicate two hours a week to overseeing peer counseling groups during the semester. Lewis wrote, however, that clinicians can no longer properly fulfill this advising role while dedicating themselves to the training required for the rapid transition to telemedicine.

“I appreciate that students might wish to connect with peer counselors, but these are extraordinary times, and we remain focused on providing high quality telemedicine services to all students across the Harvard community,” she added.

Lewis encouraged students seeking mental health resources to visit CAMHS’s website. She added that students requiring help after CAMHS’s operating hours should call its emergency counseling hotline to speak with a licensed therapist.

Jennifer “Jenny” X. Hong ’23, who works as a peer counselor at Harvard Eating Concerns Hotline and Outreach, said the group has adapted operations since it cannot provide remote peer counseling services.

Hong said ECHO intends to launch social media campaigns to promote body positivity and answer student questions about mental health. ECHO has also begun soliciting applications for new peer counselors for the fall semester, as have other peer counseling groups — Contact, Indigo, Response, and Room 13. Contact, which focuses on serving Harvard’s BGLTQ community, also publicized a document outlining online resources over student email lists.

Hong said she hopes students will spend their time away from campus practicing self-care rather than feeling pressure to be productive.

“It's totally understandable to feel anxious and overwhelmed and taking care of yourself is the most important thing right now,” Hong said. “There are resources still available, even though ECHO is unfortunately unable to do what we do. CAMHS is still available, and there's lots of resources online. There is support out there.”

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.

—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.

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