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Harvard has a stress problem.
It's not a new one either. Even before everything converged into a never-ending Zoom meeting, our campus was maskless but still stressed out. Most of us spend our time at Harvard, whether virtually or physically, worrying about this, that, or the other, drowning in problem sets and papers, or struggling to secure a decent summer internship. Throughout it all we're forced to keep our eyes on the prize — look around for a split second, and you'll stumble into an impossibly successful peer (and part-time CEO) with an enthusiastic recommendation letter personally penned by a current senator. It’s no wonder so many of our peers can barely juggle that pressure during normal times, let alone with navigating an ongoing global pandemic on their shoulders.
So that's the diagnosis: We are tense and overextended. But why?
The roots of the problem are as obvious as they are deep. Our institution selects a number of overachieving kids from across the globe in a highly dramatized and grueling admissions cycle. It then dumps all these big fish into one tiny Boston pond, where they are forced to compete against each other for virtually everything, social and academic alike. From the prestigious courses with elaborate selection methods, to the social clubs that enforce strict, unmerciful comps, our lives frequently rely on not being the one that gets cut. A vicious cycle of sleep-deprived overachievement ensues, along with the absurd expectation of constant productivity.
If you didn't know better, you might be forgiven for thinking it's all some sadistic sociological experiment.
It's worth noting that students, sometimes inadvertently, help perpetuate this toxic culture: Every unprompted reference to our eighth class or exorbitantly remunerated summer internship leads to more forced smiles and stressed-out souls. But if it is the University that selects us, houses us, and chooses the rules we live by, it also ought to be the administration's job to prevent the erosion of our mental health.
Their attempts to do so, however, can fall flat.
Take Harvard's Counseling and Mental Health Services: CAMHS. The program is, in principle, extremely promising, offering no-cost support to members of the student body. Yet experiences with it, even within this board, vary widely. For some low-income students, the no-cost policy is weakened by the presence of hefty cancellation fees, rendering the service financially risky. For others, seeking help for mental illness is complicated by fears that doing so will result in being forced to take a leave from the College.
The pandemic (as usual) hasn't helped. Students have dealt with an exponential increase in their base stress level, as well as personal and academic upheaval. The crown jewel of the University's response, the creation of class-free wellness days sprinkled across the term, has proved underwhelming. Their name has become a bitter joke for those students who still have to power through essays and assignments on their “time off,” only to attend make-up seminars a day later. “Wellness” days have become a poor remedy for our ailing mental health: another twenty-four hours to push ourselves to produce marginally better, if any, returns, no matter what the cost.
None of the above is meant to invalidate the value of mental health programming writ large. A clumsy CAMHS is still better than nothing, and a day-off can help someone get through the week, even if they ultimately dedicate it to yet another CS50 assignment. Indeed, for every student that has left a therapy appointment feeling frustrated, there's another who felt seen and heard for the very first time. Again, our experiences vary widely — for better or worse.
That means that the key isn't to vilify CAMHS or its hard-working therapists, nor is scratching wellness days at a time when normal spring break is completely untenable. But it isn't okay to act as if everything is perfectly fine either.
Rather, we want to see the administration admit fault in its approach to mental illness and health, commit to improving it in a manner cognizant of Covid’s unique pressures, while also acknowledging the underlying, pre-pandemic root causes of our stress. In the short run, that might mean addressing CAMHS's weaknesses; or, more pressingly, creating a set of common enforceable standards that protect our right to relax during wellness days, such as limiting scheduled work and prohibiting college-related Zoom events.
Harvard is stressful. When “normal” life resumes, this will remain true. Mental health resources are vital to our community, and bulking them up in an empathetic, situationally-aware manner has to be an essential part of the University’s mission, pandemic or otherwise.
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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