The well-documented mental health struggles of young people in America were made worse, but not created, by the pandemic. We asked College students why their generation has felt these problems so acutely, how their own lives fit into the narrative, and how they take care of themselves. The answers have been edited for clarity and length.
Em Barnes ’25
The circumstances in which my generation have grown up have not been particularly conducive to great mental health. Going through the recession in 2008, where a lot of people were still pretty young seeing their families go through financial troubles they didn’t have before. COVID obviously caused a lot of issues. Online school. Just general political polarization and radicalization. Also, growing up on social media.
Online school was really tough for me. I went home in the middle of my junior year of high school and I didn’t come back in person for a full year. The isolation from my friends was really, really tough for me and I ended up having a number of mental health problems. It just feels very normal to have mental health problems. Two students in my graduating class at my high school killed themselves. It’s been very standard to me for a while to be surrounded by people who are having serious mental health issues. It feels very much like the status quo of being alive today. I only started therapy this year and it’s been great for me. I think we just try to support each other. My biggest supports come from my friends who have gone through similar things that I have, and we are trying to work through it together.
Joey Bejjani ’26
I do feel at times dependent on my phone. Even when I’m bored for a second, that’s what you go to. I realize it’s unhealthy when I’m doing it, but what else are you going to do? I feel like I can manage it to a certain extent. I went a week without my phone for the pre-orientation [first-year outdoor program] here and that was fine, so I think I’m able to manage it. Sleep is important. I like to run. Outdoor stuff is nice for me. So is music. I play violin with the Bach Society.
Spencer Carter ’23
I’m very much a person who’s opted out of social media so I don’t find that online social comparison is a big thing for me. But I’m introverted, and coming out of the pandemic, I feel content to not push myself as much socially. In terms of the expectation thing, I’m a senior, but I also took a gap year during the pandemic so I’ve now been around Harvard a while. As I’ve gone through College, I’ve come to a much better understanding of what I want and need versus just doing the things that are before me and being in the mindset that I have to do everything really well. I came in with the mindset that I had to be one of the best at everything. Now I am happy to find niches of things that I want to be really good at, but not trying to be really good at everything.
One thing that I’ve gotten more intentional about is saying no to things. It’s like a funny little ecosystem on campus with student organizations; it’s almost like a microcosm of the outside world. People start doing the jobs they want to do after college in college. They’re doing consulting, or they’re leading outdoor trips, or they’re running after-school programs And so it becomes this environment where there’s a lot of pressure to do those things — devote a ton of time to student organizations while also maintaining your classes. Especially on the student organization front, I’ve gotten better at saying: “This is a cool-ish opportunity, but it would also detract from me having time to get my homework done and sleep enough.”
Josephine Elting ’26
On Instagram, people don’t really show, “Oh, I’m having a bad day today.” It makes it easier to feel bad about yourself and where you are, which creates a downward spiral. In a way, we have too much information today and it causes us to mentally not be doing so well.
My mom is from Zimbabwe and talking about mental health is not a big thing they do, and going to therapy is not very common and something you share with other people. That’s kind of the way I grew up and then when I went to high school, I saw it’s OK to talk about these things and a lot of times you’ll be better off after you talk about it, but it’s hard to become better if you can’t have that conversation.
Being here is a very stressful environment, so the second week, I was like, “Oh, I need to buy a bike.” I went on Craigslist and found a bike. If I’m getting stressed, I go for a bike ride somewhere quiet enough to think through things. Here it can be so busy that you don’t have time to think through things, so you have to force yourself to go to spaces where there’s no other option besides thinking, which for me is on my bike.
Ottou Fouda ’26
Growing up in this environment versus how it was maybe 30 or 40 years ago is very different in terms of affording a house or getting a job. You see a lot more people moving in with their parents. It’s just a very different economic space that contributes to these problems. Social media is definitely a factor.
There’s also a lot of stigma surrounding mental health that has in part been alleviated over the past couple of years, so I think a lot of people are coming forward talking about their struggle with mental illness — maybe not necessarily because something has happened in the last 10 years that has induced more signs of mental illness, but because more people are comfortable talking about it.
I can’t say personally that I’ve had any serious struggles with mental illness, thankfully. But at least in my experience, communication or expressing yourself in whatever outlet is really important. To de-stress I like to spend time with my friends. Aside from that, I have started to wake up a lot earlier. Campus is pretty much empty before 10 a.m., so I have a couple of hours in the morning to chill, get my work done, and you can take like a lot of time to do everything. It’s just a process I enjoy.
Madison Hussey ’26
The idea that you have to impress — and there are so many people online that put up a fake narrative to impress — definitely contributes to the fact that kids my age, young adults, feel the need to have to conform. I think the only time I’ve had trouble with mental health is during the college application season. Applying to schools is definitely not the best. Overall, I think that I have made it a goal to get outside, like I am now, and find different hobbies that make me happy and balanced. All that’s really helped.
Emily Moore-Shrieves ’26
Social media is a huge contributor. Comparing yourself to others and seeing what goes on in others’ lives creates a false reality.
It’s funny: My mental health is better being in school now because going through the college application process and even younger years, in high school, you see people getting into these really great colleges and what they’re doing in high school — you’re comparing yourself and thinking, “What can I do to make myself better to be like them to get into these schools?” Once you get to graduation, you get to those places in life, you’re like “OK, looking back, I was doing my own thing and I ended up here too.” One of the great things about Harvard is the people, so I enjoy spending time with friends.
Sascha Pakravan ’26
I see social media playing two different roles here. First, it’s being connected nonstop, 24/7. It never gives you any space to be by yourself or to think through your own thoughts, to take time to process emotions, process things that you have to do, because every time you have your phone on you, someone can reach you from wherever and whenever. Second, it’s always being subjected to look at what other people are doing and what other people’s lives consist of, and you can’t really focus on yourself and focus on improving yourself because all the time you’re seeing what other people are doing, and more often than not those aren’t accurate representations of how other people feel or what they’re doing. They are selective portrayals which give us the impression that those are lives that we should be living when even those people are not living those lives. I think this has a lot to do with where I’m from [Hawaii],
but the ocean and water give me peace. More often than not, I find myself just taking the T and going to the Seaport if I need to take a break or decompress. I go to the Seaport, whether it’s just to walk along the water or sit and listen to my music. Sometimes I even study there either with a friend or by myself, just go to a coffee shop by the water.
Helen Pang ’23
It’s hard to not compare yourself to other people. People are under a lot of stress now because there’s this pressure to get started early and start hustling early. Kids are not just playing anymore. I didn’t grow up exposed to mental health issues. I was raised to work hard and get a lot of fruit out of that. I think I’ve been lucky to handle the pressure, although there have definitely been times when it’s been hard. There’s a lot more focus on how much you as a person can produce — this utilitarian mindset that you’re worth your output — and that contributes to a lot of stress here. I’ve definitely felt that myself too.
I’m Christian, and I see the value of who I am in that way. My work is one thing, but it’s not who I am. I guess that’s what carries me through.
Campbell Rutherford ’26
The Internet and social media have changed everything for our generation. Some of the things that we are experiencing now are a bit unprecedented. I’m uncommonly blessed with a very good family. When I do struggle with mental/emotional things, I feel as if I always have support at home to help me with that. I also do not tend to spend much time on social media because a lot of it is very visual and, for obvious reasons, that doesn’t appeal to me. Of course, there are blind people who do spend more time on social media than I do; I think it’s more of a personality preference thing. But in all honesty, I don’t think that I experience more negative emotion than I should or more positive emotion than I should. I think I’m in a relatively good mental health place. I’m certainly not in a place of homeostasis, but I think I’m able to grow where I am.
If you or someone you know needs access to mental health services at Harvard, visit the University’s Counseling and Mental Health Service or call 617-495-2042.
For more information about resources at Harvard and the We’re All Human wellbeing initiative, visit: www.harvard.edu/wellbeing.