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When Words Fail

By Allison G. Lee
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.

Sometimes words fail us, especially in times of inconceivable loss. The recent suicide of Rachael Shaw-Rosenbaum, in her first year at Yale University, is one of these times.

We extend our deepest sympathies to Rachael’s family, her friends, her classmates, and all who remember her as “unapologetically herself.” We ache for Rachael, we ache for those she left behind, and we ache for those who share the pain she felt before she died.

Though we never had the chance to meet her, Rachael’s death hits far too close to home, leaving us hollow. We are not entitled to every detail of her story, but the plotline is one we know too well: We see it in our friends who struggle silently and bravely, every day. We see it when we are the first responders to our peers in mental health crises, the first to know when they are hurting from a pain we feel powerless to stop. Our attempts are not always enough.

Rachael’s story leaves us gasping for air because in another universe, her name could have been replaced with our friend’s name. Our own name.

Mental health struggles on campus are not new. Words failed us here at Harvard only a few months ago as we tried to grapple with our own loss to suicide, Thomas B. “Tommy” Raskin at the Law School.

The Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated students’ struggles — seeing our college experience come to a grinding halt and plagued by loneliness has been emotionally devastating to live through. But the roots of the issue run deeper and darker, and pervaded our lives before the virus. Loneliness has always been here, preying on what makes life worth living. The problem is only made worse in the pressure cooker that is Harvard, where rates of depression and anxiety are substantially higher than the national average.

We cannot let this be our normal.

The worst thing we can do, that Harvard and Yale can do, is stay silent and pretend that Rachael’s suicide and the mental health struggles students’ are facing, is business as usual. We need to talk about it. Undoing a culture that engenders such pervasive mental health issues requires effort on both the part of the administration and the student body.

Harvard, there is a problem here. That’s part of what makes Rachael’s death so hard for us to grapple with. This university is our home — one with reddish-brown bricks, colorful, metallic chairs. Joys and curiosities and sorrows. In this home, we need to feel safe and taken care of: While we truly believe that the Harvard administration cares about us, the University’s communication and execution of this genuine care sometimes falls short.

Harvard is students’ home even when they are on leaves of absence. Yet the policies that call for near complete ostracization of students on leave — being taken off House email lists, for example — suggest otherwise. Tiny bureaucratic details that may seem small to administrators — like the possibility of losing on-campus housing — make taking a leave, even for mental health reasons, a paralyzing and further isolating endeavor. Harvard needs to take care of its students when they are hurting, even if — especially if — they felt it necessary to take time away from campus. We don’t know the details of Rachael’s situation, but students calling for more forgiving leave of absence policies in the wake of her death should be heeded.

Academic culture at Harvard, especially in the middle of a pandemic, must also be more forgiving. Our campus is, by definition, run by people at the very top of their fields, who faced hyper-competitive academic structures and thrived. Our professors and lecturers, even if deeply empathetic, likely struggle to fully internalize the emotionally eroding impact of constant, ruthless rivalry.

While our university has our best interests at heart, good intentions alone will not alone be enough to help students.

Still, it would be narrow-minded for us as students to assume all the responsibility lies with our administrators, even if we believe major progress could emerge from the top, down. Each of us contributes to Harvard’s culture, shaping it with every word or interaction, on and offline. That culture — our culture — can be incredibly cruel.

Harvard is full of driven, ambitious people; that might be its most absolute quality. But the dangers of excess drive and ambition are caustic. We have previously condemned Harvard’s fetishization of exclusivity: comps, punches, and other elite divisors. We are used to treating those harms abstractly. That is a mistake.

“Just got rejected from every extracurricular I applied to,” Rachael tweeted in September of last year. We’ve heard that line before. It hurts to read. And it hurt to see how fervently our board recognized the pain, often suffered silently, that Rachael was brave enough to put to words.

We, as students, need to show each other grace. Instead of focusing on professional networks, build support structures and become part of other peoples’. As with anything, we only get through this together.

We don’t have all the answers, and can’t pretend to: Rachael’s passing leaves us lost. All we know for sure is that being kind to each other, around each other, will make this all a bit more bearable.

Our words aren’t enough today, and they won’t be tomorrow. But for Rachael, for our peers, for ourselves, we have to try. Someone needs to try to make these ivory towers kinder.

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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