Campus & Community

Harvard focuses on mental health

5 min read

People may think of Harvard students as models of cool, as intelligent, sophisticated youths well able to handle the pressures of academic work and social life at an elite university. But they are really like everyone else in terms of having to deal with the challenges of getting good grades, missing their parents, and making new friends.

As part of a unique effort to help students cope with these challenges, and to reach out to those who may be having problems, Harvard has begun sponsoring a series of workshops and discussions. Called Caring for the Community, the program is designed to help faculty, staff, and students recognize signs of mental distress and make everyone more aware of good health practices and available support services.

The workshops follow distribution of a new brochure, called “What Can I Do?” aimed at assisting faculty members to become more aware of students who need help and to refer them to appropriate resources.

Both the brochure and next week’s workshops are being coordinated by the Provost and the recently formed University Student Health Coordinating Board, which includes deans of students, directors of student mental health and counseling services, and Harvard affiliated physicians and psychiatrists. The board was created as a result of recommendations made last November by a Provost’s committee that explored ways to improve student mental health services.

“At Harvard, we are fortunate to have a large network of people who are devoted to supporting our students, including tutors who live in the undergraduate Houses, as well as professionals at the graduate schools whose jobs center on providing the best services for students,” says Provost Harvey V. Fineberg. “This effort is unique in that it unites students, staff, and faculty throughout the University in an effort to make Harvard a healthier and happier place.”

Addressing the problems

The Caring for the Community week features a lecture by Kay Redfield Jamison, an expert on mood disorders and their treatment. Jamison is a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University and author of “An Unquiet Mind,” and “Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide.” She writes about these subjects from personal experience, having survived a suicide attempt and manic-depression.

Jamison will speak on Monday, Oct. 23, at 4 p.m. in Sanders Theatre. Admission is free and tickets are available at the Holyoke Arcade Box Office. Following her talk, Jamison will meet with the University Student Health Coordinating Board to discuss comprehensive strategies to prevent mental health problems at Harvard.

“It’s important to recognize that psychiatric illnesses are very common,” Jamison said in a telephone interview. “College-age years are an especially vulnerable time, so it’s important to emphasize that depression and other disorders are treatable and to know where to get help. Harvard is to be congratulated for its great effort in reaching out to prevent such problems by informing students where to go and who to talk to.

“Students themselves should be proactive in such efforts,” she continued. “It’s been my experience that they have good ideas about how to raise each others’ awareness. They are in the best position to be sensitive to their own feelings and those of their fellow students.”

More than a bad day

About 40 separate workshops and discussion sessions for students and staff will be held from Oct. 24 to 27 at various locations across the campus, including the undergraduate houses and professional schools. (Sessions for those working with first-year students took place on Oct. 18, as part of monthly meetings with assistant deans and proctors.)

Professional staff from University Health Services and the Bureau of Study Counsel will lead the discussions. Examples of topics to be discussed at staff workshops include: “Recognizing Students in Distress” and “Working Together to Respond to Students.”Sessions for graduate students include topics like “Setting Boundaries and Managing Stress” at the Divinity School, and “Minding Your Body: Quick Tips on the Mind/Body Relationship” at the Graduate School of Arts and Science.

At the College, students will talk about issues that are of interest to themselves during dinner or dessert sessions at their Houses. They also can attend sessions that advise “How To Be Smart About Sleep,” give “Massage Tips for the Stressed-Out Student,” or explain time management in “Time to Make Time.”

Such sessions will “raise awareness that 25 percent of all people experience episodes of depression or anxiety in their lives,” notes Richard Kadison, chief of mental health at University Health Services. “The thing we want to do at the workshops and discussions is make clear what signs and symptoms both students and those who work with them should recognize before trouble occurs.”

The sessions for students, Kadison points out, “allow us to find out what’s on their minds, instead of relying on the results of some survey.” One of the big issues is sleep. “Some students think that it’s macho to do more things with less sleep,” he says. “But that will eventually lead to trouble.”

Another problem on campuses all over the country involves eating disorders. “Fifteen to 20 percent of females have issues with food,” Kadison notes. “It’s another area we recognize and are doing something about. Our overall goal is not so much to treat mental illness but to maintain mental health. That’s a vital part of maximizing every student’s potential at Harvard.”

Times and places for workshops and discussions can be found at and Those who wish to comment on mental health issues can contact or call 496-5775.