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In Wake of Anti-Asian Hate Crimes, CAMHS Did More Harm Than Good

By Kendra N. Wilkinson
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Asian American students have had to bear witness to a sickening wave of anti-Asian hate crimes dominating the news for the past few weeks, the culmination of a history of violence and racist tropes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. And when these students needed Harvard’s support the most, Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services plainly failed them.

On CAMHS’s anti-Asian racism resources webpage, grieving students were offered a now-deleted series of insensitive tips, including the following: “You may wish that you weren’t Asian, but remember that your ancestors likely went through similar or even worse incidents.”

These statements aren’t just utterly inappropriate but are also emotionally damaging to Harvard’s AAPI community and entirely antithetical to the role CAMHS is supposed to serve for students. Their propagation only furthers the stereotyping that the AAPI community is trying to combat.

The context that enabled this massive oversight reveals the structural problems that exist within the organization: The insensitive advice, on the website since spring 2020, was drawn from a flyer co-written by a CAMHS intern and was intended to summarize student input from a panel — not to be a response to the Atlanta shooting. Why was this content not reviewed — and subsequently changed — after it was repurposed? How was it up for a whole year without a staff member noticing its flaws? And most disconcertingly, why did no one at CAMHS think to return to this page in the wake of the recent hate crimes when they knew students would be seeking resources?

The consequence of this misstep, in addition to harming students who were seeking help, is that Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander students, as well as students of color more broadly, will rightfully feel as though they cannot trust CAMHS to handle issues of race with care — a repercussion that is particularly disastrous for a mental health service in which students already had shaky faith. To that end, CAMHS’s not only inadequate but negligent response to student need also stands in stark contrast to the multitude of student groups who mobilized immediately to provide resources and support to one another and to their communities.

Against this backdrop, we lack confidence that CAMHS is equipped to deal with issues surrounding the intersection of mental health, discrimination, and structural racism.

So where do we go from here? CAMHS needs to start by rebuilding trust with students, especially those in the impacted communities.

At the most basic level, CAHMS should make clear that it is here to listen to students and support them as individuals. It should stop making broad, overly simplistic statements that flatten the rich levels of difference and heterogeneity that exist among its constituents; and it should recognize that no students’ lived experiences or mental health needs deserve to be treated as monolithic. People of color experience and react to racism differently, and painting these experiences with broad strokes only serves to further alienate and isolate students.

More tangibly, we need to see CAMHS hire more diverse staff and offer better training for counselors — especially training that scrutinizes the intersection of racism and mental health — so that students can speak to professionals who are actually equipped to help them. Such developments should, at the very least, incorporate a more nuanced understanding of the disparate ways that structural racism manifests across different racial and ethnic groups’ experiences in the U.S. In this case, for instance, deeper awareness of the model minority myth may have raised red flags about CAMHS’s problematic resources at an earlier point, preventing the outrage and hurt that followed. As it works to correct such missteps moving forward, CAMHS should rely on and curate resources from experts who have researched the intersection of racism and mental health for different groups.

In pledging to work with Harvard’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging, CAMHS must also make its intended improvements clear and public in a way that enables them to be held accountable — to show students that change has been made.

Still, these critiques have not been made with the intent to overshadow or trivialize the wonderful people and counselors who do the ever-important work of caring for student mental health. Rather, our frustration rests in the fact that, as an organization, CAMHS has failed our peers in need.

Fundamentally, CAMHS needs to demonstrate the institutional care that would have ensured that a staff member at least glanced at the resource page that they knew students would be visiting in the wake of a racially motivated shooting.

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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