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The Backpacks We Carry: Talking About Suicide at Harvard

By Serena G. Pellegrino, Crimson Opinion Writer
Serena G. Pellegrino ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Philosophy concentrator in Lowell House.

UPDATED: November 30, 2021 at 10:15 p.m.

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) 495-2042.

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

A laptop, a notebook, a couple of pens, a water bottle. The contents of our backpacks are probably quite similar for the most part. But we each carry very different things, too. These are the things no one can see. Maybe they’re hidden between the pages of a textbook, or wrapped around a pencil. They’re our stories and memories, expectations and regrets. We carry worries and doubts and things we can’t take out, even if we wanted to. The things that aren’t things occupy the most space. But zipped up tightly behind us, no one might ever know what’s really inside.

Last month in Harvard Yard, 1,000 backpacks covered the grass, symbolizing the average annual number of college students lost to suicide. With an accompanying image and written memorial of its former owner, each backpack, now empty, told the story of the young life that was. As a part of the mental health organization Active Minds’ initiative “Send Silence Packing,” the display was a thought-provoking monument to the loads that became too heavy.

“To end the silence that surrounds mental health and suicide” was the objective of the display — a valiant goal in itself. But on our campus, it proved to be a brief — almost imperceptible — pause in silence rather than an end to it. We breezed past each backpack, each story, and each life quickly. As a community, we didn’t stop to acknowledge their gravity. Even if my sample size was small, I never heard so much as a conversation about it in the dining hall. And less than a month out, the Yard long cleared of the backpacks, it’s as if nothing ever happened. Our collective reaction was disturbing because we barely reacted.

This gesture of solidarity was initially promising on the College’s part. Harvard’s treatment of suicide on campus has been historically problematic due to a lack of transparency. Underreported suicide rates and a lawsuit in which Harvard was ordered to disclose data on the matter have fostered the lurking sense that something is very much amiss. Inadequate transparency is not only deeply unsettling, but it also deters students from seeking help in the competitive environment in which aversion to seeking any help is already so strong. With this most recent display proving to be one of performativity rather than progress, the ensuing lack of dialogue exposed an alarming lack of compassion, and this kind of neglect poses a serious threat.

Especially post-pandemic, our campus is facing distress. This summer, Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services introduced a 24/7 support line, and this fall, the number of calls has been overwhelming. This fact alone clearly indicates that our campus is in a precarious position.

In part, this is because our mental health services are notoriously inaccessible. Whether that’s due to its being understaffed or overbooked, students have reported waiting weeks to months for an appointment. We can’t afford to let those who are reaching for help wait. Inaccessibility only perpetuates the destructive, subconscious narrative that we shouldn’t need or can’t get help at all.

The other component of this crisis, which is perhaps even more troubling than a lack of resources, is that no matter how much we promote seeking help or talk about the importance of mental health, we never really address it. As a community, we are committed to countless other worthy causes from the graduate student union to fossil fuel divestment. Why, then, when we’re faced with the fragility of each other's lives, can we only spare less than 24 hours? How, with a clear conscience, do we slap a bandaid over pain?

Ultimately, the College’s lack of dialogue points to a more troubling systemic behavior: tunnel vision. We emulate the example the College sets. If it trivializes mental health (even if, and especially if, it says it’s not doing so), we will, too. On campus, we learn quickly and in unspoken terms that the more emotionally detached we become, the more we can get done. The less will get in our way. If we can turn a blind eye to each other’s problems, to our own struggles — if we can even become numb to the loss of life, apparently — very little is left to hold us back. The unceasing success machine that is Harvard will keep on cranking.

I don’t expect the College to end our struggles with mental health altogether. What I ask of it, though, as well as of our community, is very simply to show that we all actually care. That we care that every one of us is carrying things we cannot see. We will, of course, continue guarding our bags, keeping them close to us, and zipping them up tight. But what we really need to know is that when they get a little too heavy, we’ll have a place to safely set them down — at least until we’re feeling strong enough again to pick them back up.

Serena G. Pellegrino ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Philosophy concentrator in Lowell House.

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Correction: November 30, 2021

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the CAMHS urgent care phone number is (617) 495-5711. In fact, its phone number is (617) 495-2042.

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