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Columns

The Brick Wall

By Gemma J. Schneider, Crimson Opinion Writer
Gemma J. Schneider ’23, a Crimson Associate Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column, “Wilted Wellbeing,” runs on alternating Tuesdays.

“Tryna prove a point to my parents; like this post if you or one of your close friends at harv are currently depressed.”

The post, slabbed across the top of the Harvard Confessions Facebook page, had no name attached to it, no comments, no shares. But it did have 132 likes.

A flurry of related posts on this very same page has added thunder – and context – to this storm of 132 pixelated thumbs. One student documented a semester replete with bouts of depression that became aggravated by an unmoved Teaching Fellow. Another detailed a failed search for help within bureaucratic confines: Having met with Harvard Counseling and Mental Health Services, two peer counseling groups, and their resident dean, the student wrote, “I can’t believe how all of them felt like talking to a brick wall, and how little true support Harvard has to offer.”

The construction of these stony brick divides is in fact paradigmatic of student mental health advocacy at Harvard. Even when administrators promise progress, problems tend to persist – only to pile added weight onto the towering, seemingly impenetrable walls which divide us.

Surprisingly, it’s the pre-Covid data compiled by administrative leaders on the other side of that wall – Harvard’s very own Report of the Task Force on Managing Student Mental Health – that casts the darkest of shadows upon this discolored brushwork of online whispers. Published in July 2020, the report demystifies the stressors that cut across all corners of the University – from overburdened undergraduate classrooms, to hypercompetitive clubs, to overflowing lines of students waiting for an appointment at CAMHS, where professional help is a scarce resource in high (and increasing) demand. The report’s hard metrics unearth the virulent spread of this campuswide epidemic – nearly one-third of surveyed undergraduates thought they may be depressed; 62 percent felt isolated, withdrawn, or just flat out lonely; and 6 percent reported having seriously considered suicide.

On the surface, these two sources of student divulgences couldn’t be more different from one another. One, a constellation of anonymized disclosures fueled by frenzied fingers on pocket-sized screens. The other, a careful study collected by key stakeholders across Harvard. And yet, beneath their outer surfaces, both the frenzied posts and the empirical data tell the same story: one of dejected students entrenched in a pressure-cooker culture, further scorched by broken systems of support.

Upon its release, the task force’s nuanced depiction of the Harvard student experience – one which so neatly mirrored students’ candid, anonymized lamentations – seemed to be a remarkable act of listening, an informal commitment to start chipping away at the tall administrative divide which has taken decades to construct.

I managed to lock in a Zoom call on Friday with two of the most powerful players entrusted with executing the report’s recommendations: Dr. Giang T. Nguyen, the Executive Director of Harvard University Health Services, and Robin T. Glover, Harvard’s Associate Provost for Student Affairs.

The story that unfolded is a complicated one; one which I find difficult to make sense of regardless of how many hours I spend leafing through my scribbly, dotted interview notes. But one thing is clear: 19 months later, the Implementation Committee charged with enacting the report’s recommendations has made surprisingly little headway.

Technically, as Nguyen and Glover made clear, a myriad of the task force’s recommendations had been heeded – but they were low-hanging fruits with little juice to bear. Largely dried out by soft calls for further inquiry, these recommendations not only enable, but practically beg for, inaction.

Key among these was the directive to assemble a team that would “explore” accessibility at CAMHS.

“That's a work in process,” Nguyen said of the team’s work. “So, we don't have any solutions from that yet, but we have folks who are working very hard to address that.”

In other words: the team has been formed, but its impact has been nil.

Also within the list of recommendations was counsel that a team be built to launch a one-year mental health awareness campaign. Back in March 2021, University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 told The Crimson that the Provost’s Office was “working out” how to implement this recommendation. Nearly a year later, working groups are still, well, working.

“A current working group that we have is to look at resources and training for our faculty to address things about dealing with students with distress,” Glover said.

The most dispiriting fact here is that this slowness of action sucks power from the urgency embedded within the task force’s unsettling collection of findings – a “crisis” unfolded, to use the report’s own language, through its candid mosaic of hard numbers and soft-spoken words. This fiery crisis is still alive, but as it blazes through Harvard’s gates, not all hands are on deck to diffuse it.

“The implementation of the task force recommendations is just starting at this point because there were a lot of other things that we had to really focus our energy on in terms of responding to the pandemic,” Nguyen told me. “But also, some things just take time.”

Perhaps some things do take time. But when they’re made a priority, they nonetheless manage to get done.

Maybe this really is a story of competing priorities – as Nguyen hinted, it was particularly ill-fated that this report came out only four months after a raging pandemic ravaged the world. Or perhaps this is just another case of the Harvard administration’s notorious tendency to overpromise and underdeliver. Maybe it’s a bitter mix of both.

The week after next, this column will evaluate Harvard’s visions for new mental health enactments. And when the Implementation Committee actually starts implementing, I’ll report on their continued progress, too.

The clock is ticking, though – not least because I’m set to graduate in less than 19 months.

Gemma J. Schneider ’23, a Crimson Associate Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column, “Wilted Wellbeing,” runs on alternating Tuesdays.

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