University, students unite for mental health

4 min read

If a student is struggling, stressed-out, or having trouble coping with pressure, the University is here to listen and help.

That’s the theme behind this year’s “Speak Out, Mental Health at Harvard,” a weeklong series of events to engage the student body in active campus dialogues about mental health.

The Undergraduate Council and the Mental Health Advocacy Group are co-sponsors of the initiative. Together they planned the event with help from the Department of Behavioral Health and Academic Counseling and the Center for Wellness at the Harvard University Health Services (UHS).

“It’s really an opportunity for students to say to other students, ‘Hey, we should pay attention to each other’s mental health, and by the way there’s a lot of information we may not know about the amount of stress we are under and about the resources available on campus that can help,’” said Paul Barreira, Harvard Medical School associate professor of psychiatry and director of Harvard’s Department of Behavioral Health and Academic Counseling.

Barreira said he hoped the student-led effort would help eliminate the awkwardness many feel when trying to talk about emotional challenges or personal issues.

According to a senior thesis survey conducted last year of 900 Harvard students by Judy Herbstman ’07, one of the top obstacles to students who reported needing — but not actively seeking — help for emotional challenges was the stigma or shame they associated with mental health issues.

“The week’s theme ‘Speak Out, I’m Listening,’ encourages students not to be afraid to talk about how they are feeling and how they are doing,” Barreira said.

The week of events included a kick-off concert at The Democracy Center (Feb. 23) with proceeds benefiting the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C.; an address (Feb. 24) by Barreira to the Undergraduate Council; and a panel (Feb. 25) in Ticknor lounge titled “Can YOU Handle the Pressure? Here’s How” that examined how students cope with stress, competition, and pressure in graduate and medical school.

The week’s two remaining events are a coordinated effort that takes place this evening (Feb. 28) at various locations around the University, and Friday’s (Feb. 29) “Speak Out Day.”

“Speak Out Study Break” sessions will be held tonight (Feb. 28) in every House dining hall and in the Annenberg dining hall for freshmen from 8 to 10 p.m., and will consist of informal discussion groups where students can simply talk about what’s on their minds with their peers. Literature and brochures about the various campus mental health resources and support groups will also be available at each site, as will graffiti walls where students can express their thoughts about mental health at Harvard or their own mental health experiences.

“We really wanted something that wasn’t supervised, or complex,” said Tamar Holoshitz, a sophomore member of the Undergraduate Council who helped plan the study breaks and the week’s other programs. “We really wanted something that was appropriate that also promoted the sense of discussion.”

Holoshitz said organizers hoped to display the temporary graffiti walls in the House common rooms tomorrow (Feb. 29).

Another important goal of the effort, said its organizers, is the development of a better dialogue between students and the University.

During “Speak Out Day,” forms will be available outside the Science Center from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and at University Health Services throughout the day. The forms will include a series of open-ended questions that students can use to share their UHS or their mental health experiences with each other and with UHS. Also available will be three postcards dispelling three mental health myths, which students can send to friends as a simple means of checking in with each other.

“Students often have reservations about using all the resources Harvard has to offer,” said Holoshitz of the feedback forms. “The more open lines of communication there are between students and UHS, the more likely students are going to be to use the resources available here and seek help.”

In addition to getting people talking, Barreira said he hoped the event would help change students’ attitudes toward the University.

“One of our hopes is that initiatives like this week will change the perception that the Harvard College environment is an unsupportive and uncaring one,” he said, adding, “I believe students are ready to change that perception, and their commitment to this initiative and others like it demonstrates their desire for future students to see the College as a caring and supportive community.”