Last spring, the Harvard Student Mental Health Liaisons held a meeting to discuss “institutionalizing the consideration of students’ mental health” at Harvard. Months later, in the fall, Hannah R. Alton ’22 and Elizabeth T. Wang ’23 founded a chapter of Active Minds, the nation’s leading mental health organization for students and young adults, on Harvard’s campus. As the chapter enters its second semester, its co-presidents hope to continue its growth.
Alton and Wang say they are particularly excited to bring their experience with mental health advocacy to Active Minds’ network of over 550 chapters in high schools and universities across the country. They have previously served as mentors and liaisons in the mental health space at Harvard, facilitating dialogue between Counseling and Mental Health Services and the student body. As Student Mental Health Liaisons — also known as SMHLs — Alton and Wang say they hosted neighborhood office hours to bring counselors into residential houses and dormitories, inviting students to communicate mental health concerns directly to the counselors. In fact, they say, many ideas for improving the resources CAMHS offers were born out of conversations during these office hours.
However, CAMHS suspended all peer counseling programs the spring of 2020 because the groups could not receive needed supervision during the pandemic. And as part of an effort to combine several student-run peer campus health education groups into a single organization, four such groups — including the Drug and Alcohol Peer Advisors (DAPA) and Consent Advocates and Relationship Educators (CARE) — have been temporarily inactivated. They will be combined into a new, all-inclusive organization with an anticipated launch this fall. SMHL, too, will undergo changes, although HUHS has not specified what form they will take. “Even though everything was put on pause, the problem is that people are still struggling,” Alton says.
In particular, Active Minds hopes to focus on fighting the stigma around mental health treatment on campus, according to its co-presidents. “It is a persistent issue in seeking help,” Alton says. To address this stigma, Active Minds “puts out recommendations to make campuses more responsive to the needs of students,” Alton says, and they plan to do the same at Harvard. The organization plans to “provide frameworks and strategies for policy changes” related to mental health programming and literacy, according to Alton. Some of their ideas include leave of absence policy changes, printing phone numbers to mental and emotional health resources on the back of student ID cards, and consolidating the peer mental health groups’ web pages.
Active Minds is planning “Movies for Mental Health” with the Undergraduate Council, a series of events in which they will screen thought-provoking short films produced by students, then guide student discussions of topics addressed in the films. “We are hoping to draw as many people in the student body as possible to these events,” Alton says. “We’re looking forward to being able to provide a non-judgemental space to contribute to the de-stigmatization of mental health at Harvard.”
Alton and Wang note that remote learning during the pandemic has introduced a new set of mental health challenges that have compounded existing issues. “It’s harder than ever for students to know what resources are available to them,” Wang says.
A UC Student Experience Survey conducted last spring asked participants which resources required for academic success they felt they lacked; the second most frequent response was “health and wellbeing resources.” Another question asked students to describe their awareness of virtual wellbeing resources on a scale from unaware to extremely aware; the majority of students answered that they were somewhat aware or less aware. Alton and Wang took particular note of how, according to the survey, the majority of students indicated that their mental health had worsened since the pandemic started.
Alton and Wang hope that by bringing Active Minds to Harvard, the organization can help “make student mental health resources more visible and more accessible to people,” especially at a time in which student demand for such resources has increased.
CORRECTION: March 22, 2021
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Harvard would launch its new merged peer health education group in spring 2021. In fact, it plans to launch the group in fall 2021.
— Staff writer Dannie C. Bell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.