Mentally Prepared: Fixing Mental Health Policies at Harvard

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Mentally Prepared: Fixing Mental Health Policies at Harvard

My name is Nikki Daurio and I’m currently a sophomore at Harvard University. Last year, I developed depression and suicidal ideation so I decided to seek help. I noticed several flaws within the Mental Health Services on campus and encountered several paradoxes in the public health system. Following that, I decided to dig deeper and see if my research agreed with my opinion.

Harvard University has made several attempts to help alleviate the problems that arise from mental health issues across campus; however, the policies the university currently have in place have unseen flaws that end up leaving students feeling helpless. For one, the attendance policy does not explicitly state that mental health problems are a legitimate excused absence. Secondly, the services provided for students in need at Harvard University Health Services (HUHS) do not accurately or efficiently cultivate a supportive atmosphere for those who are suffering. Policies need to change in order to give immediate care to students. This would involve a therapeutic phone consultation that would ultimately allow a student to take a mental health day off from class and serve to better their health through a conversation with a professional. A highly elite university like Harvard needs to enact these changes as soon as possible.

[1] Harvard University’s mission statement is to educate citizens; however, I believe that this is not enough. It is time to take action and not only educate the leaders of tomorrow, but make their environment at school a place that works with the students to better their wellbeing as individuals. Currently mental illness is widespread across the country at all universities, but it is especially prevalent on Harvard’s campus. It is natural on a college campus to find students stressed out and reeling under the pressures from academics, extracurricular activities, friends, and the necessity to manage time to sleep. Stress is a primary factor leading to mental health problems which, in turn, can lead to even more serious concerns. It can be a top cause for physical ailments including cardiovascular disease, asthma and many more (Landow 2006). The fact that a student’s poor mental health can also affect their physical health is a substantial issue that is quite worrisome. The combination of both has serious and detrimental problems that affect not only how a student is feeling, but also their performance in and out of the classroom. These include an increase in the probability of missing class, dropping out, alcoholism, and suicide (Landow 2006). These all exemplify the crucial need to offer students help, and to make their environment a better place so that these issues don’t ever arise. The university needs to actively change policies to better accommodate those in need. While a lot of students recover after suffering a short bout of extreme distress, there are some who end up being tormented by mental illnesses ranging from depression to schizophrenia. In particular, the environments at the Ivy Leagues can be purely overwhelming. Luckily, over time, school officials at these universities have recognized how distinct of a problem mental health is. They’ve instilled several programs to aid the student body as it reaches out for help (Khurana 2015).

[2] On a positive note, at Harvard, there are several mental health resources available to every student. Dean Khurana, amongst several other high officials at the college, recognizes the need to aid students and has been fighting the stigma of asking for help (Yang 2014). However, in the process of simply raising awareness and creating these programs, they’ve overlooked key details necessary to actually help with students’ mental debilities. These range from the lack of urgency for mental health appointments to the fact that mental health is not deemed as a legitimate excused absence on Harvard faculty’s policies of attendance. The only way to accomplish the university’s goal of cultivating bright minds is to keep those minds healthy. Unfortunately, a paradox is in play due to the fact that school officials tirelessly explain that the mental health of their students is their top priority, yet once it affects a pupil’s academic performance, it is almost deemed inexcusable. Harvard University is not solely responsible for providing an education for its student body; the academic institution must also fully address mental health as a Harvard community health issue and aid in the growth of its students as human beings as a whole. Current policies set on attendance and the urgency with which mental health issues on campus are addressed need to change and adapt to the mental health needs of the student body in order to accommodate them in times of need.

[3] Students have started speaking up about their struggles and these issues prove to still be extremely prevalent despite university efforts. While trying to deal with the unbelievably demanding workload at such a prestigious college, students suffering from mental disorders end up struggling to keep their heads afloat. In 2013, a schizophrenic student had to stay up all night trying to catch up on work that they had missed due to feeling sick. Despite the obvious problems of sleep deprivation that comes with those actions, sleep was the only way the student could escape the over-powering “screaming demons” in their mind (Anonymous 2013). When this student brought their problems to the HUHS seeking help, they were told to simply drink some tea and try to stop stressing out. The one form of refuge that Harvard was offering turned their backs on someone who was clearly suffering a disorder that was deteriorating their health. In 2014, a freshman dealt with the pains of attending a highly demanding university. She had been “crying for hours every day” and was at risk of doing something “dumb” (Klein 2015). She, like many students, found herself under extreme mental distress. Granted, these are extreme cases and don’t capture the whole situation, however, a great deal of people at Harvard are at various levels on the spectrum of poor mental health and an astounding 37% of them are dissatisfied with the mental health services provided by the school (Robbins 2014).

[4] These students have to go through difficult transitions since they are coming from being the best at what they do to being normal at a place where the top percentage of academic minds are centered. It’s natural for them to struggle when going to a university of this caliber, but I am completely disheartened by the fact that these young adults are driven to the point of feeling completely helpless. All of this is still happening despite the several programs, including the Student Mental Health Liaison, designed to combat these problems by constantly promoting self-care. Students at Harvard spend their whole lives building themselves up to ultimately go to one of the most amazing schools in the world. It’s tremendously unfortunate that once they reach this goal and finally enroll in the school of their dreams, they are sometimes met with ineffective and poorly designed support systems.

[5] Colleges need to help with the long-term health and development of their students; they cannot be seen as solely specific to an academic institution. This is especially true due to the fact that stress and mental health issues have proven to affect the academic capabilities of students. So, if Harvard is wanting to academically cultivate some of the best minds in the world, officials need to change their policies to also keep those minds mentally healthy. Helping now can actually make for better contributing human beings in the future.

[6] Indeed, it is true that Harvard has recognized the need to address mental health issues on campus. I have received 17 emails about mental health from the college in this year alone. However, the fight for a healthier student body should not stop with simple recognition and talking about mental health around campus. Currently, there are several resources available for students who are suffering from a broad range of disabilities that are tormenting their minds (Yang 2014). Leaders at the university realized that they needed to provide better care for their students once research and data came out stating that well over a quarter of students are suffering from mental illnesses (Alters 2015). Looking deeper than that statistic, it’s important to put a face to it to realize the alarming magnitude of the situation. Sadly, in a class size of 60, at least 15 of those students are under extreme distress. In addition to this, it’s not only the prevalence of mental health on campus that the school needs to worry about, but it’s also the effects that come with these types of ailments.

[7] Despite the incredible advancements that the university has made in creating mental health programs, college students are still suffering. Harvard students’ mental problems have not been cured. The university’s attempts at helping at various points in the system have fallen through. Granted, at an Ivy League school, stress is almost guaranteed and understandably can’t be prevented. However, the concerns that can be thwarted are when stress manifests itself in students’ minds to the point of being the causation of mental illness. Sadly, this build-up of stress leads to actual physical illness including “headaches, asthma, hypertension, ulcers, lower back pain, and other medical conditions” (Landow 2006:94). Some of these symptoms aren’t severe enough illnesses that students would normally go into HUHS for, but they are extremely detrimental when trying to keep up with the intensity at Harvard. Also, when left untreated, the stress and the way young adults cope with it can lead to even worse difficulties including anxiety, depression, and substance abuse (Landow 2006). These mental health problems not only affect the students while at school, but lead to lifelong obstacles. Specifically, the terror of suicidality is present on campus – an alarming average of one life taken per year. This shows the absolute severity of the problem that has found itself on Harvard’s campus.

[8] Nevertheless, the deans at the college think that they’ve addressed and tackled this community health issue. Even President Drew G. Faust said in 2015, “Keeping students physically and emotionally healthy is one of Harvard’s top priorities” (Klein 2015). Unfortunately, they have failed to realize that they can say a lot about wanting to help, but it takes a significant amount of effort in order to ensure that there is a substantial amount of action behind those promises. Especially since there seems to be a discrepancy once a student’s emotional health stands in the way of a student’s ability to go to class or participate in the college compared to when said student is suffering from physical health issues. There are a lot of flaws in the university’s system, thus it is necessary for the Harvard community health to combat these issues in certain policies.

[9] First of all, Harvard does its part in offering several mental health resources ranging from professionals at HUHS and the Bureau of Study Counsel, peers at places like Room 13, and residential supporters who live in close proximity to the students (Yang 2014). There are several kids who utilize these services; alas, not all of them are given the right amount of attention or the quickest access to care. Students feel the need to seek out for professional help when things are going particularly poorly for them mentally. The policy Harvard currently has in place for that is a scheduled phone consultation and then, based on this evaluation, the arrangement of an appointment at HUHS if needed (HUHS 2016). However, these kids need help immediately; it is the reason that they are calling. At that specific moment in time, they feel that the stresses of Harvard and life in general are too much and they need a professional outlet. One student believed that the phone call was actually “a barrier to receiving mental health treatment” (Klein 2015). An additionally horrifying fact to admit is that these troubled students have to possibly wait up to 48 hours for their phone consultation – which is just a brief evaluation and not a therapeutic session – and a third of students who are deemed as needing to meet with a counselor need to wait a little over a week to be seen, with an upsetting proportion of students even having to wait up to 15 business days later (Klein 2015). This gap in time between a student feeling helpless and health care officials providing help and treatment is far too large. Any student could either worsen or feel unsupported by their school and choose not to follow through with the necessary appointment. These problems even arise in urgent times. It’s difficult to see the emergency on-call therapist if the student has no physical markings that it’s an emergency, like cuts to the wrist or guaranteed plans of suicide. HUHS is more receptive to people who have already committed the damaging acts to themselves (personal experience). It is absolutely uncalled for that students who aren’t immediately hurting themselves need to wait to be seen, especially since within that time frame things could escalate and drive the student to do exactly what is needed to prevent. This needs to be addressed as soon as possible so students feel that they have a safe, easy and accessible way to help deal with their struggles.

[10] Another flaw in Harvard’s actions based on mental health is that they do not explicitly list mental health days as a valid and excusable absence (Student Handbook 2015). The university’s high officials always talk about wanting to help their students in every way possible, but once the problems start interfering with missing class and academic performance, there seems to be no other option than withdrawing from a class or taking a semester off (personal experience). These solutions are signs of not showing clear support for the students as they attend the university. Indeed, this is seemingly a campus-wide policy and for an immediate example of this, the required freshman expository writing class follows an attendance policy that states that there can only be two unexcused absences (Achterberg 2016). All other ones need to be cleared with documentation from the HUHS due to a medical reason. It is very unclear in regards to mental health issues and nowhere does it explicitly say that students suffering from mental illness can be excused from class (Student Handbook 2015). In order to get the medical documentation, a student needs to go to HUHS and speak to an urgent care specialist in order to be provided a professional note.

[11] There are several reasons as to why students suffering from a mental illness can’t provide the correct documentation for this medical excusable absence. Some students are so debilitated that they don’t want to go into HUHS to get a mental health note. It is easy for a student suffering from an ongoing mental disorder to provide the right documentation in a timely manner since they have a regular counselor already aware of their situation, but students who have just come to terms with the fact that they have an illness will have a much harder time getting an excusable absence since they have to go through the entire process of HUHS’s practices previously explained. Another common issue is that students know they feel unwell and can’t go into class, but they are unaware to define it as a mental health problem. It’s distressing to think that a kid could be damaged from an illness and not even be able to deem it as debilitating as such. They also might not want to formally recognize their illness due to the stigma surrounding it (Raghaven 2014). Unfortunately, there is nothing that a professor can do to help the student in that situation due to Harvard’s policies surrounding student-teacher relationships. According to the Faculty Handbook for 2015-2016 under the section for “Troubled Students,” instructors are not allowed to help their students by recommending them to be seen by a counselor even when they are clearly suffering from emotional distress. There is such a blatant disregard in terms of mental health because in comparison, if a student was coughing, sneezing, or had a broken leg, the teacher would tell the kid to go to HUHS for treatment and receive a quick medical documentation in order to easily miss class. Finally, in regards to several mental illnesses, such as PTSD or panic attacks, students physically can’t go to class or HUHS simply because they need to have certain stimuli in a safe place in order to cope with their specific situations (Tull 2016). Harvard doesn’t have the right to say that these students are not allowed to miss class because the kids already feel troubled by the fact that they can’t make it to class. Even though it’s not a cleared “medical problem” under Harvard’s policies, these are legitimate human needs.

[12] As seen by all of the overlooked cases that I have brought to the surface, it’s not enough to provide places for support groups and help once a student is already distressed. Harvard needs to have better prevention methods, including adapting the attendance policy and making it easier to access professionals both from the comfort of their room, at any time of day, and as quick as possible with an actual therapy session. Especially at any Ivy League school, environmental factors have a detrimental effect on the mental health of a person and prevention of mental illness must adapt specifically to Harvard’s chaotic environment (Landow 2006). It is necessary to reduce risk and increase protective factors, identify preclinical cases and stop them before they become a debilitating illness, and promote how people can take on the challenges of their environment. Since school administrators claim that they make the mental health of their students a priority, they need to focus on the discrepancy between HUHS’s patient care model and the students’ abilities to access it (Hatoff 2013). They want to offer mental health services as quickly and as easily accessible as possible but currently, students can’t receive mental health help from the counselors at Harvard over the phone or via skype (HUHS 2016). I’d like to propose a plan of action that tweaks the current system already in place. Instead of having a phone consultation that aims to evaluate the patient, there should be an immediate therapeutic session available by phone if the student wants or needs it urgently or if they feel like they are close to a breaking point and just need a mental health day (Kitzrow 2003). The instant phone conversation would solve the urgency of talking immediately to a professional rather than waiting a couple weeks for things to potentially get worse. First of all, this is a way to help a student in need throughout the day. Secondly, the phone consultation can account for the requirement of getting a mental health excused absence for class. Based on the student’s conversation with the clinician, the professional can make the decision to give the student a mental health day and tell the professors to excuse the student so that they can rest and recover. Altogether, this design is a prevention and a coping mechanism. In order to make this happen, a sum of money needs to be allotted to mental health programs and there needs to be an increase in staff available to help (Kitzrow 2003). In order for young adults to effectively deal with the many pressures of being a college student, it is essential that they feel supported during their entire college career.

[13] Intervention to help combat mental health problems is the only logical solution among college campuses. It simply is not enough to recognize it and talk about it; something needs to be done in order to help. There are students who are clearly suffering a great amount, so much so that suicide is actually the number one cause of death among them. Despite the long-running and ongoing problems, only between a “fifth and half of all college students with mental health burdens seek treatment services” (Raghavan 2014). At Harvard, even with that fraction of students coming forward and pursuing help, students are faced with unaccommodating services and policies that the university has put into place. Prevention efforts for mental illness enacted to control its detrimental effects are just as important as the other preventive measures that are taken for other Harvard community health challenges; since they both affect students in a debilitating matter, they should both be treated equally, especially at such an elite and demanding school like Harvard.


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By | 2017-02-15T14:31:20+00:00 January 31st, 2017|College, Lived Experience, Stories|0 Comments

About the Author:

Nikki Daurio is currently a sophomore at Harvard University, and founder of Stopping the Stigma, page to help raise awareness about mental health and prove that it deserves to be treated as normal as any other physical illness.

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