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Editor's Note: 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.
— Guillermo S. Hava and Eleanor V. Wikstrom, Editorial Chairs
— Raquel Coronell Uribe, President
In September 2015, tragedy struck Harvard’s campus when Luke Z. Tang ’18, a student in Lowell House, died by suicide. Three years later, Tang’s father filed a lawsuit alleging that several Harvard employees — including residential dean Catherine R. Shapiro, former Lowell Resident Dean Caitlin M. Casey ’03, and Counseling and Mental Health Services employee Melanie G. Northrop — displayed “negligence” in the case of his son. Last week, Harvard attorneys argued that the school’s actions did not rise to the legal definition of negligence, and that these named affiliates had no liability in Tang’s death.
A student died by suicide on Harvard’s watch — and Harvard claims to have sufficiently fulfilled its duty of care.
We wish to express our utmost sympathy and support to Tang’s family as they navigate this painful case. We can’t speak to the law here — its sterilized conceptions of negligence and liability, its calculated assignment and dismissal of blame — but as a student community who mourned the loss of Luke Tang seven years ago, the gut-wrenching impact of this case is clear. Harvard’s defense, and its equation of “duty” with what seems to be a bare-bones minimum standard of care, is not what we expect from our school. If Harvard fulfilled its duties in Tang’s case — despite the University’s failure to ensure Tang was undergoing treatment upon his return to campus after a recorded suicide attempt the previous semester, and the expectation that he would reach out proactively for help, as outlined in the complaint — then the content of those “duties” must be thoroughly reconsidered.
There’s no other way to express it: Watching this litigation unfold is heartbreaking. By affirming the notion that those entrusted with our care for four years have no responsibility, in terms of basic human compassion, to reach out to students who have previously expressed suicidal ideation, the University sends a message that our well-being only matters insofar as it is a liability.
Infusing compassion into Harvard’s mental health care is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. Harvard must adopt an approach to mental health care that includes preemptive outreach for those it knows have previously struggled with or acted upon suicidal ideation. The burden should not fall on students suffering mental health crises to seek help; case managers should not consider their duties fulfilled simply because an at-risk student has failed to explicitly ask them for help. Focusing on preemptive care will ensure that students struggling with suicidal ideation receive the care they require.
Putting students above legalistic bureaucracy also means treating us like individuals.
Mental illness is as varied as the people it affects; there’s no one-size-fits-all response to depression. Taking a leave of absence, for example, can help some students gain clarity and peace while removing others from their support systems at the risk of worsening their mental health. Policies surrounding mental health need to be flexible.
But policies are not enough — culture matters, too. Harvard’s hyper-competitive, sometimes toxic culture can often push us to figure things out on our own instead of asking for help. On our campus, the necessarily stressful separation from family and transition to adulthood combines with an extraordinary academic pressure — and more broadly, on campuses across the country, it combines with a generational despair. The product is a proliferation of mental health crises, year after year, among a demographic that must already contend with sparse on-campus resources.
We want a university that sees us as people to be cared for, not liabilities to be managed. Harvard’s response to the lawsuit takes care to distinguish University students as young adults rather than children, implying that we somehow deserve less care and attention as a result. But that respect for young adult autonomy seems to disappear when Harvard urges students to leave campus and then dictates the terms of their return through University Health Services riders or other means. We don’t want a university that shifts its view of us according to convenience.
When we struggle, we deserve dignity and support. We don’t deserve to be seen as a burden. Perhaps more concretely, we will find it a lot easier to ask for help if we feel that doing so triggers Harvard’s genuine care for our wellbeing. Students in crisis should not have to worry about whether the University’s interests are aligned with their own.
It has been seven years since Tang’s death, but many of the issues surrounding Harvard’s handling of his case still linger today. Regardless of the legalities of the case, given the College’s less-than-optimal mental health care infrastructure, we fear student trust in these resources will only be further reduced by Harvard’s cold, legalistic response. Most concerningly, if Harvard’s logic continues to assert that everything is fine unless students explicitly reach out for help, then on paper, this campus may not experience any mental health struggles at all — a crude calculation of liability with the potential to be dangerous.
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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