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Harvard’s Mental Health Failure

By Vinny K. Byju
Vinny K. Byju ’20 is a first-year student at Harvard Law School.

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 988.

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.

— Eleanor V. Wikstrom and Christina M. Xiao, Editorial Chairs

— Cara J. Chang, President

During my first weekend at Harvard Law School, I received an email saying that a classmate in our 80-person section had died by suicide. A native Oklahoman passionate about immigration law, Jeremy was the first person I met at the Law School. As I nervously waited to pick up my orientation packet, Jeremy kindly struck up a conversation with me and told me about his recent road trip to Cambridge with his dog, Louis. I remember thinking to myself that law school couldn’t be so bad if people like Jeremy were in my class.

Tragically, Jeremy’s story is not unique at Harvard. At the Law School, at least three students have taken their own lives in the last five years, and between 2007 and 2017, nine undergraduates died by suicide. In 2012, The Crimson estimated the suicide rate at the College was two to four times the national collegiate average, depending on the metric used.

Last fall, the University implemented a new mental health initiative to improve campus resources and raise awareness. However, these recent actions fall short in significant ways and myopically miss a crucial point about mental health altogether.

Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services has been frequently criticized for its slow and bureaucratic nature, which, for some patients last year, included six-week wait times for therapy appointments. The new mental health initiative strives to streamline the patient intake process and provides students with a teletherapy alternative through the third-party platform TimelyMD. While a good start, far more is needed to bring campus resources to an acceptable level.

For the past 10 years, students have called for CAMHS to reform its care timeline, which provides only short-term counseling with sessions spaced out every two to three weeks. Harvard students need longer term and more frequent care, and the University ought to dramatically invest in CAMHS to make this a reality, along with subsidizing the $35 copay students on University medical insurance pay for many off-campus visits.

While making treatment access easier and more comprehensive is important, focusing on just this jarringly misses a crucial piece of the puzzle. Mental health issues don’t exist in a vacuum. Instead of making efforts to address structural causes of poor student mental health, like academic and institutional stressors, Harvard’s new initiative continues a trend of reluctance to interrogate the impacts of its environment on its students.

When it comes to grades, rising average GPAs have placed greater pressure on students to avoid previously acceptable grades like an A- or (God forbid) a B+. Moreover, a lack of transparency in grade distributions can make students feel competitive even in introductory classes, like Expos 20, where perceived difficulty of obtaining an A has left students to speculate about the existence of an unspoken curve.

At the Law School, the ostensibly less stressful Pass/Fail grading system is pathetically undercut by the distinction between Dean’s Scholar, Honors, Pass, and Low Pass categories. That students never receive feedback on any work in many classes prior to taking an eight-hour intensive final exam — worth 90 percent or more of the course grade — is yet another structural factor that places undue stress on students’ mental wellbeing.

Unrealistic academic workloads and expectations are also actively detrimental to students’ mental health. First year law students are required to take 18 credits their first semester, yet the maximum allowable credits for successive semesters is 16. Additionally, many students can readily recall examples of unacceptable pedagogy by professors that left them anxious and embarrassed like the dreaded and oft-abused cold call. It is indefensible to justify student suffering on the grounds of a trial by fire or by appealing to tradition. At the minimum, the University could better enforce existing academic policies, like the prohibition of assignment deadlines during most of Reading Period, or elsewise hold professors to higher standards of respecting students’ wellbeing.

Harvard’s leave policy, too, is an institutional failure. According to 2017 reporting by The Crimson, one in 20 students takes time off every year, some involuntarily. For students dealing with severe mental health issues, Harvard often imposes strict requirements for their time off and return to campus, like inflexible treatment and monitoring guidelines, as conditions of re-enrollment.

One such student “contract” has come under scrutiny in an ongoing lawsuit concerning a 2015 student suicide after Harvard imposed unforgiving and non-negotiable terms for enrollment following a previous suicide attempt. Harvard’s draconian rules allow it to escape liability at the expense of its students. It’s no wonder the Ruderman Family Foundation has scored Harvard’s leave policy at a D-.

More broadly, Harvard students frequently encounter an intractable and unaccommodating bureaucracy. At the Law School, class recording requests are only approved in limited circumstances and when made one full business day in advance. Last fall, the administration ignored a student petition to allow a remote option for the last three days of class following Thanksgiving break. The adage that Harvard doesn’t have to care about you because it’s Harvard should be evidence enough that the University needs to tune in to its students’ wellbeing.

As we continue into another semester, Harvard must take a serious look at its handling of the ongoing student mental health emergency. By ignoring its institutional responsibility to address structural factors, the University sends a dangerous message: Our campus environment is destined to make students unhappy, and we should just plod onward by developing individual coping mechanisms. Worse still, a culture of cruel optimism blames students when those paltry solutions inevitably fail in the absence of meaningful change. This is wholly inadequate. We must work toward genuine reform that confronts the ugly sides of a Harvard education. Our students deserve better.

Vinny K. Byju ’20 is a first-year student at Harvard Law School.

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