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Our generation is depressed. To say that is not to wallow in self-pity but to point to a serious policy problem. A generation of Americans is modally despondent, and yet institutions from Harvard on up treat addressing this crisis as a luxury instead of a basic requirement for a functional community. This approach is not sustainable.
Our latest reminder of the problem comes from Harvard’s Institute of Politics, which released its Youth Poll last month. Just over half of respondents aged 18 to 29 reported feeling “down, depressed or hopeless for several days or more in the past two weeks.” This number is double comparable figures from only 15 years ago, part of a decades-long trend that cannot be dismissed as a function of the pandemic. This trend is not merely a result of over-diagnosis, growing awareness, or shifting definitions: pollsters ask the same questions, and we give more and more worrying answers.
We recognize that Harvard’s $50+ billion endowment is not unlimited. Large swathes are restricted, and worthy competing priorities range from financial aid to cancer research. But Harvard doesn’t let those obstacles get in the way of keeping the lights on, and mental health support is part of keeping the lights on. When a third of your students think they might suffer from depression and CAMHS has a wait time of six weeks, those lights are flickering at best. Harvard has a mountain on its hands, one that’s treated like a molehill.
It may be that donors prefer funding buildings and professorships. Change their minds! Teaching students to live a fulfilled life isn’t peripheral to Harvard’s mission, it’s essential. Training functional future leaders isn’t peripheral to Harvard’s mission: It’s essential. We hope that the alumni who read this see the severity of the problem we face and consider opening their checkbooks. We hope that administrators demonstrate that they are actively soliciting such donations. The new CAMHS 24/7 hotline is proof that this approach can work; the Harvard Youth Poll is evidence that it must work faster.
Funding is not, of course, a panacea. Policy and culture also have to change, as we have repeatedly suggested. There are some obvious choices: professors should be understanding and flexible with students suffering from mental illness. Faculty and staff should be equipped to recognize warning signs as best they can and to respond appropriately. There are also more subtle policy fixes.
Student leave procedures are often an excessive burden. Students who take leave, voluntarily or involuntarily, can face requirements in order to return, including six or more months of non-academic work and onerous medical preconditions and procedural obstacles. Fulfilling these conditions off campus can be most difficult for the most disadvantaged among us. These requirements can then disincentivize those students from taking much-needed time off for their mental health.
Conversely, students who receive two “unsatisfactory grades” are forced to withdraw from school for two terms and are often not permitted on campus for the duration of their leave. Students who are suffering due to their mental health and whose grades have dropped because of it then lose their housing, meal plan, and on-campus support system. This kick to the curb is accompanied by a checklist that can be challenging to complete and which determines their ability to return. Permission to return sometimes comes just days before the start of school, leaving students’ futures in the air. Harvard’s leave system, however well-meaning its administrative design, is deeply flawed.
Within this flawed system, we nevertheless encourage those who are struggling to seek help where they can. Therapy and medication, of course, are effective treatments for many mental illnesses. Scientists have found mental health benefits in everything from meditation and exercise to vitamin D and sleep. To be clear, going for runs is not a healthcare policy: These are not comprehensive solutions. But they are tools that we can bring to bear as we wait for our lumbering home institution to catch up.
Finally, Harvard’s response to this national problem should extend beyond its gates. Funding can only help insofar as we understand the problem, and Harvard’s mission of knowledge production can change lives by filling this gap. Researchers from psychology to medicine to the humanities have great potential to contribute. We call on the University to redouble its efforts to research the determinants of youth mental health and to set high institutional standards as a model for other colleges. We ask that donors consider funding a systematic expansion of this type of research.
Harvard’s money and expertise provide an opportunity to help not only our own students but countless others who would benefit from our research. We have the power not only to help those directly afflicted but to serve a nation that will one day depend on a generation now adrift. We must exercise that power. Lives depend on it.
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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