Colleges and universities across the U.S. were reporting significant increases in mental health issues even prior to the onset of the COVID outbreak. In response Harvard Provost Alan Garber convened a Task Force on Managing Student Mental Health in early 2019 to begin to address these concerns, which worsened over the pandemic, and the group released its recommendations in the summer of 2020 as the outbreak raged.
The University is beginning to implement the proposed changes under the leadership of Robin Glover, Harvard’s new associate provost for student affairs. Before assuming this new role Glover was associate dean of student services at the T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The Gazette spoke with Glover, as well as Emma Dench, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, who was a co-chair of the Task Force, and Giang Nguyen, executive director of Harvard University Health Services, to discuss next moves.
Emma Dench, Robin Glover, and Giang Nguyen
GAZETTE: Remind us what Provost Garber asked the Task Force on Managing Student Mental Health to do when it was first convened.
EMMA DENCH: Alan asked us to begin to examine how the University could best address significant increases in student mental health issues that reflected a national trend in higher education at the time. This was, of course, prepandemic, and already Harvard was thinking about how to best address student mental health.
The Task Force consisted of 46 individuals from across the University’s Schools and units, as well as outside experts. We conducted a 15-month data-based inquiry, whereby we were able to gain a strong understanding of the mental health concerns of Harvard’s undergraduate and graduate students alike. Professionals in providing mental health care, University administrators and faculty members, and graduate and undergraduate students comprised the Task Force’s membership.
The charge of the Task Force was to gain a greater understanding of student mental health and to issue recommendations for future work. The official Task Force recommendations were released during July of 2020.
GAZETTE: There were eight recommendations to come out of the Task Force, correct?
DENCH: That’s right. You can find the entire report on the Provost’s website, but a couple of the high-level recommendations included examining how the University can holistically address issues of mental health, sexual climate, inclusiveness, isolation, and sense of belonging; and tasking a team within the Provost’s Office to work on student affairs University-wide. From my perspective as dean of GSAS, I was also pleased to see the importance of advising cited and our ongoing work to address that through The Advising Project noted.
GAZETTE: And Harvard has already worked to institute recommended programming, correct?
GIANG NGUYEN: Yes. As Emma mentioned, the addition of Robin as associate provost for student affairs was specifically called for in the report, and she has been a critical step in moving things forward on a University level. Harvard is made up of independent Schools, each of which has its uniquely strong reputation and way of doing things. So, as we move forward, under Robin’s leadership, we need to continue to acknowledge that level of independence, while also working collectively to respond to the issues of mental health that are affecting so many students, not just at Harvard, but across our nation’s institutions of higher education.
The University has also convened work groups on creating improved access to Counseling and Mental Health Services, instituted CAMHS Cares, a new 24/7 call line to support this improved access, and placed student mental health at the forefront of our outreach, resources, and support throughout this unprecedented pandemic.
GAZETTE: How have the realities of the pandemic altered the University’s thinking, and process, related to student mental health on campus?
NGUYEN: COVID has of course forced the University to pivot in a variety of ways, including delaying its ability to get started on an implementation committee as it sought to directly address emerging needs caused by the pandemic. But the pandemic has also only strengthened Harvard’s resolve to better understand, and serve, its community’s needs with regard to mental health. Now that many of us are back on campus, we are hard at work on a concrete implementation of the Task Force’s recommendations.
You know, throughout the pandemic, we’ve shown as a University that we can do things collectively, and be successful. I look forward to that spirit of partnership and cooperation as we institute these recommendations.
GAZETTE: Robin, your office has, as Giang mentioned, begun work on continuing to implement the recommendations laid out in the Task Force’s report.
ROBIN GLOVER: That’s right. We’ve put together a team to coordinate the ongoing implementation of all of the eight recommendations across the University.
Giang and I are co-chairs of the Implementation Committee, which comprises 16 individuals from across Harvard, representing various Schools and units, and including faculty, administrators, staff, and students alike. It includes Harvard University Police Department Chief Vic Clay, Barbara Lewis, who is the head of CAMHS, the College’s Dean of Students Katie O’Dair, Kate Upatham, the director of University Disability Resources, former Harvard Undergraduate Council Vice President Jenny Gan, and Harvard Graduate Council President Peter Choi, to name a few.
GAZETTE: What is this committee working on at the moment?
GLOVER: The committee has begun to convene working groups to focus on the individual recommendations; a student standing focus group will also advise the implementation committees as it rolls out new programming and resources.
The working groups will focus on: improving student access to CAMHS; the creation of a mental health and wellness orientation module; a training module and resource guide for faculty, staff, postdocs, and teaching fellows; improving upon graduate and professional adviser-advisee support; and marketing and communication on mental health awareness. Each of these groups corresponds to one of the recommendations to emerge from the initial report from the Task Force.
The implementation of these recommendations is taking place on short-, medium-, and long-term timelines, depending on the need for, and feasibility of, corresponding resources. And we pledge to communicate consistently with the Harvard community on what is taking place. In fact, we are in the beginning stages of developing a mental health awareness campaign, as called for in the report, to continue to draw attention to the scope of the issue, and the many resources that are available to Harvard students.
GAZETTE: Speaking of timelines, Giang, you mentioned that the pandemic has had a major impact on how you’ve provided care over the past couple of years with regard to mental health. In fact, promoting student mental health has been fundamental to many of the University’s policies over this time period, including the decision to bring students back to campus for this semester. Could you remind us of some of the resources that your office has put in place for students, and what remains available to them now?
NGUYEN: Absolutely. During the pandemic, we made virtual appointments available to our community members, and students should still feel comfortable connecting with mental health professionals in this way. They can of course make appointments for in-person care at the CAMHS offices as well.
The CAMHS Cares Student Mental Health Support Line (617-495-2042) was launched last summer, whereby students can directly connect with a licensed counselor 24/7. This has become a very popular resource, and we encourage students to use it for any reason, whether it’s a severe feeling that might place a student in imminent risk or if a student has general worries and concerns. CAMHS Cares connects students to a licensed mental health practitioner, very quickly.
And please check out the websites for CAMHS as well as the Center for Wellness and Health Promotion, which have a wealth of resources that are available to community members. The respective Student Affairs Offices in each of the Schools may also provide School-specific wellness programming, and the Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging hosts conversations for Affinity Groups.