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Campus & Community

Two years in, still coping with pandemic stress

8 min read

Mental Health Services leaders detail continuing challenges and resources

Besides the stresses in their home lives, many have struggled with health and safety concerns associated with work on campus, teaching, and learning, both remotely and in person. In addition, students have had to deal with the unique stresses related to living away from home and academic pressures without the traditional levels of support and comfort afforded by social activities, daily casual contact with professors and classmates, and friends.

The Gazette spoke with Barbara Lewis, chief of Counseling and Mental Health Services (CAMHS), and David Abramson, director of CAMHS Longwood Medical Clinic, to discuss the very real struggles with mental health that so many are feeling at this time, as well as the resources available to the Harvard community to help them to cope.


Barbara Lewis and David Abramson

GAZETTE: What are the realities that students are facing right now with regard to mental health?

BARBARA LEWIS:  The pandemic has exacerbated the increasing stresses that students are feeling on campus. There have been so many losses, and for our younger students making the transition to a new place, some very real disruptions along the developmental timeline. The fear of uncertainty, the lack of predictability, the lack of structure, and missing normative milestones, such as graduations and junior semesters abroad, are forcing young people to adapt so quickly, and in new, unexpected ways.

Since about 10 years before the pandemic hit, the mental health of students has been increasingly challenged due to a host of factors, and colleges and universities across the country have been unable to keep up with the demand for services.

As we all consider how best to support our student communities, we are focused on helping individuals think more consciously about mental health, and this will continue to be the case post-pandemic. I was reading something yesterday about people wanting to get back to normal, but with regard to mental health we need a new normal, where each of us understands the need to be in control of our own well-being and is aware of the tools that are available to be able to do so. This is so important for students, as well as our faculty and staff. And this understanding of personal responsibility needs to be a part of a holistic, public health, or systems approach that signals, more broadly, a paradigm shift that prioritizes mental well-being and prevention.

DAVID ABRAMSON: The de-densification of campus and the increase in remote work and study over the past couple of years has been especially difficult for any group of students coming into a program that is new for them, because so much of what they go through historically has been cohort-based. They get to know the other students and develop strong friendships. In many ways, it’s easier to go through a difficult situation when you’re going through the same thing with other people with whom you feel connected. And our students have missed out on some of these connections, even as they’ve returned to campus, as COVID has forced colleges and universities to limit many social activities, and place restrictions on other kinds of outlets that are positive in terms of staying mentally healthy, such as using the gym and getting exercise. Many students find themselves at a loss for how to express themselves socially.

At Harvard’s Longwood Medical Area, graduate students are challenged in unique ways, as they reconsider their chosen career paths, even as they are completing studies to prepare themselves for careers in academia or health care, as they are seeing firsthand the increases in stress that come along with being in those fields during a pandemic.

All of these stresses mean that, clinically, we’re seeing more and more people who are presenting with symptoms of depression, people who are feeling tired and unmotivated and sleeping more or sleeping less, gaining weight, drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana, and we’ve seen many more people having concentration problems.

GAZETTE: With all of these considerations around isolation, how important is it that the University has decided to bring back the majority of students on campus, despite the spread of the Omicron variant?

ABRAMSON: Overall, it’s definitely so important to be back for human interaction, the interpersonal connection, the camaraderie that develops when you’re with other people. When people are more isolated, they don’t get the feedback or the sort of validation that they get from both talking to other people and seeing other people. Of course, there’s also more creativity and a better exchange of ideas when we’re together in person. Being on campus also helps to re-establish routines and, for many of us, accountability. If you have to be somewhere, there’s often a built-in sense of necessity and purpose.

GAZETTE: Are there specific resources in place as students return to campus this semester that they should be aware of, and where can they find them?

LEWIS: We will be offering workshops upon returning to campus, managing emotions and other topics, which can all be found on the CAMHS website. Check out the calendar to learn about these opportunities.

The Center for Wellness and Health Promotion has a wealth of resources and activities available to community members. And students should absolutely also go to their respective Student Affairs Office, to see what wellness programming they have in place, because often the Schools do something really specific for their students.

And knowing that academic stress can have a great impact on well-being, students should remember to explore offerings from the Academic Resource Center, which can help them develop high-level skills to be more effective adult learners.

The Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging is also presenting great opportunities to participate in conversations with affinity groups, and I would encourage community members to subscribe to their newsletter or check their website to learn more.

If an individual is experiencing something more urgent, they can call the main CAMHS number 24/7 at 617-495-2042 to connect to a counselor or to make an appointment,

GAZETTE: Are there Longwood-specific resources as well?

ABRAMSON: We do have both psychiatrists or prescribers and therapists who work in person in Longwood. We also have a student support group, specifically for BIPOC students in Longwood, that meets regularly. It’s important to know that all CAMHS resources — in Longwood and in Cambridge — are available to anyone within the Harvard community, regardless of where you study or work.

GAZETTE: During the pandemic, telehealth appointments were available for community members, and last summer the new CAMHS Cares Student Mental Health Support Line was launched, where students could directly connect with a licensed counselor 24/7. Are these resources still options?

LEWIS: Absolutely. In fact, many students really appreciated the telemedicine offerings, which broke down some barriers to access. We have more participation in groups now because of the elimination of the travel-time barrier. Telehealth does provide flexibility for those with busy lives, and so yes, these options will remain in place. And our community has really taken advantage of CAMHS Cares: From July 1 to Nov. 30, we had 1,450 calls. We had over 100 calls during the two-week winter break, which is an unprecedented number.

ABRAMSON: CAMHS Cares has been so important since it allows students to access somebody immediately; they can call and push a button and get connected to a licensed mental health counselor; whereas in the past, there were several steps involved. Secondly, it’s available 24/7. Lastly, the people who work on the phone lines are very skilled at assessing and both helping a person figure out what resources are available for the future, but also helping them in the moment with coping strategies, so they can de-escalate a difficult situation.

GAZETTE: When should someone use CAMHS Cares?

ABRAMSON: There are a variety of reasons why people call. It can be anything from something very imminently dangerous, such as having thoughts about suicide, or general worries and concerns. It doesn’t have to be that severe. It can be somebody who’s saying, “Look, I’m about to head home to my family, and we’re having a conflict. I don’t know what I should do. How do I navigate the situation?” Or “I’m concerned about my friend. I’m not sure how to talk to them about my concerns,” which don’t necessarily have to be life-threatening or immediate, but they’re time-sensitive. So that may be something that they need to talk about to somebody soon and not wait for an appointment.

GAZETTE: Anything else you’d like to add?

ABRAMSON: It’s so important that we look out for each other in these deeply challenging times. If you recognize that a friend is struggling, call CAMHS Cares and get advice, or recommend to your friend that they reach out. People need to know that they’re not alone.

I’ve said this a bunch of times to students this week alone: Harvard wants you to succeed, and we want you to have a positive experience. If you’re struggling with academics or mental health there are programs in place to help you. Reach out, and we will do everything we can to get you the resources you need to be successful.