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University Task Force Finds Increase in Harvard Undergraduates Reporting Depression, Anxiety

The Task Force on Managing Student Mental Health released findings Thursday.
The Task Force on Managing Student Mental Health released findings Thursday. By Allison G. Lee
By Camille G. Caldera and Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writers

The percent of Harvard undergraduates who reported they have or believe they have depression and anxiety increased almost ten points between 2014 and 2018, according to findings from the Task Force on Managing Student Mental Health released Thursday.

Undergraduates who reported that they have or think they have depression increased from 22 percent to 31 percent, while undergraduates who reported that they have or think they have an anxiety disorder increased from 19 percent to 30 percent. The proportion of undergraduates who reported suicidal ideation also increased from 4 percent to 6 percent.

The university-wide task force — convened by University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 in February 2019 — analyzed the state of student mental health at Harvard and presented eight recommendations to improve it.

The suggested changes include “staffing a dedicated and diverse team to work on student affairs” and launching a one-year campaign focused on mental health.

The task force also recommended the creation of committees to further evaluate how to make Counseling and Mental Health Services more accessible and how to lessen stress brought on by competition to join extracurricular activities.

The report noted that CAMHS employed 47 mental health professionals since 2015, increasing its staff to student ratio to roughly 468 to 1. It also noted that wait times at CAMHS have increased since 2018 — a trend that has persisted for years.

The group referenced a nationwide survey conducted by the American College Health Association which reported a diagnosis of depression increasing from 15 percent to 18 percent from fall 2015 to spring 2018. The ACHA survey cited also reported a diagnosis of anxiety increasing from 18 percent to 23 percent.

However, the survey conducted by the ACHA did not contain a question asking students whether they “think they may have” a mental health condition, and the report concluded that “the incidence of mental health disorders reported by students at Harvard appears to be lower than reported by college students nationwide.”

The report also included other mental-health challenges experienced by undergraduates, including feeling overworked and suffering from "imposter syndrome."

“Once admitted, for many students – particularly students of color, first-generation college students, low-income students, and international students – it can feel as though the hopes and dreams of their families or even their entire communities are riding on their success, and that success is narrowly defined as certain high-powered or prestigious pursuits,” the report reads.

When students arrive on campus, they find themselves “burned out” after chasing achievements in high school.

“Arriving on campus already burned out from their high school years and suddenly surrounded by equally high-achieving peers, students once again set out to prove that they are the best of the best,” the report reads. “In this environment, it is no surprise that students report high levels of imposter syndrome, that they feel pressure to make the most of their time at Harvard, and that they take on too many commitments, feeling guilty if they are not as busy as everyone else seems to be.”

In evaluating the added stress brought on by extracurricular activities, the task force recommends the creation of a committee to evaluate how to lessen the stress brought on by “comping” — the process Harvard students use to audition for clubs and activities.

“Comping, the process of competing for entry or admission into an organization, can require a significant time commitment, in some cases equaling the workload of an additional academic course,” the report reads. “Many students comp multiple extracurriculars at the same time or comp multiple times for the same organization, trying to get in after an initial rejection.”

Though there is no University-wide survey of graduate student mental health, the report compiled survey results from 11 programs, concluding that 23.6 percent of grad students exhibit symptoms of moderate to severe depression and 23.1 percent of graduate students exhibit symptoms of moderate to severe anxiety.

The task force highlighted how the relationship between Ph.D. students and their advisors were correlated with their mental well-being. It also noted the existence of a power differential between advisees and their advisors.

“Issues in this area range from an absence of connection with one’s advisor, because the advisor is either physically absent or is not available for check-ins, to advisors whose behavior is actively harmful to students’ mental health,” the report reads. “While some advisors are adept at setting expectations and managing students, others struggle with these skills or do not view them as a priority.”

In his email to affiliates, Garber also tied the 18-month task force's work to the pandemic, which has brought new uncertainties to student life and ushered in telehealth.

“The needs highlighted by the report have only grown over the past several months,” Garber wrote in his email. “We will need to be agile and creative in thinking about how best to support our students in the near term while also keeping sight of the longer view.”

—Staff writer Camille G. Caldera can be reached at camille.caldera@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at michelle.kurilla@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

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