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One Thousand Backpacks Remind Us to Hold Each Other Close

By Angela Dela Cruz
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

A Note from the Editorial Board: The following piece includes discussion of severe mental health struggles and suicide. We’ve compiled a few resources that might be useful to any readers in need of help or support. Please make sure to take care of yourselves — seeking help is always worthwhile.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255.

If you are enrolled, Harvard's Counseling and Mental Health Services offers no cost support, including Urgent Care appointments at (617) 495-5711.

For international students, here’s a list of some internationally available support hotlines that might be helpful.

On Oct. 16, 1,000 backpacks lined Harvard Yard. While we usually don’t think twice about the bags we carry with us every day, these backpacks sprawled across the grass symbolized the average number of college students we lose to suicide each year; the number of backpacks that no longer have owners to carry them.

This display — brought to campus by the Harvard chapter of Active Minds, a national organization devoted to improving mental health in young adults — was bright with vibrant colors. Its presence, however, was a jarring reminder of the mental health crisis that is casting a shadow over campuses across the U.S., including ours.

We want to applaud Harvard Active Minds for this display. Talking about suicide is difficult, but as the title of the exhibit, “Send Silence Packing,” implies, is imperative to ending the stigma that keeps students from seeking help before it is too late.

This display, with its overwhelming physical presence, reminds us that even though we too have physically returned to campus after a year away, the struggle of maintaining our mental health never left. And there are grave consequences of not giving mental health the attention it necessitates: These backpacks belonged to best friends, problem set buddies, teammates, and roommates. Demanding our attention as we passed through the Yard, the exhibit forced us to hit pause; to stop going through the motions for a moment, and to think about how we might have cared for these students and what we want our community — as a support system, and as a collectivity — to look like moving forward.

To the Harvard community: We must do a better job of actually seeing and reaching one another, particularly during difficult times.

Even before the pandemic, we have long struggled with how to effectively support one another through mental health challenges at Harvard. This is a function of being enmeshed in a culture that celebrates perseverance and looks down upon taking time to care for ourselves and for others. As we plow through our daily routines — running to meetings, rushing through problem sets, cramming for tests — we become trapped in a state of inertia, running ourselves down to the point of exhaustion.

So, for a minute or two, let’s stop sprinting. We need to be there for one other, not running away from each other.

During the pandemic, we experienced what it felt like to be without our support systems and without people to confide in. Some of us remain scarred from the personal battles that we endured during this lonely period of time. But now, we’re together again; and we must all be present, both physically and emotionally, to help each other heal.

With on-campus mental health services like Harvard Counseling and Mental Health Services consistently falling short, the most accessible individuals to whom we can lament our mental health struggles are fellow Harvard community members. For the time being, the work has fallen on us to assume the role of unofficial mental health advocates.

This doesn’t mean that we can solve Harvard's mental health crisis on our own. It means that we must simultaneously hold Harvard accountable for its lack of investment in mental health support initiatives — for instance, by demanding that we get more from our grossly under-resourced Counseling and Mental Health Services — while genuinely investing in one another as we fight for such reform.

Standing together as a community to create a more compassionate one is, in fact, a legitimate form of activism. On a regular basis, we can make sure that our friends feel valued. Some may not want to share what they’re going through, but we can still make their eyes brighter and their insides warmer.

So in all of our relationships — peer-to-peer, student-to-professor, Crimson-editor-to-Crimson-editor — let’s reach out and revel in providing the support we couldn’t virtually. Let’s not only send silence packing, but speak louder about how we want our revitalized campus community to prioritize our own and each other’s well-being.

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.

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