Council Addresses Mental Health

UC: Harvard’s calendar has negative impact on mental health

The Undergraduate Council (UC) marked the beginning of “Mental Health Awareness Month” and its push for academic calendar reform by detailing plans yesterday to improve awareness of mental health services on campus.

The UC says that the College’s current academic calendar, which requires fall-term final exams to be held after two weeks of winter break, is detrimental to students’ mental wellbeing.

The UC’s advocacy for reforms comes on the heels of a mental health survey, which was administered to about 1000 undergraduates in dining halls on March 21 in the hopes of guiding UC efforts to tackle calendar reform.

“We knew that there were some serious mental health issues about [the calendar],” Student Affairs Committee Chair Michael R. Ragalie ’09 said yesterday. “Every time we talk to the mental health professionals on campus they say that this is a mental health issue.”

Paul J. Barreira, the director of University Health Services’ Department of Behavioral Health and Academic Counseling, confirmed Ragalie’s statement yesterday, saying that the College’s academic calendar makes relaxation during the year difficult. With finals on the horizon, many students spend December vacation time studying for tests rather than relaxing.

“Our current academic calendar doesn’t give the students a chance to really take a break in the middle of the year,” Barreira said. “So basically when school starts in September there’s really no opportunity for students to...take a breath.”

Having pulled the tall sheaf of surveys out of his small blue backpack—where they occupied considerably more space than any academic or course materials—Ragalie identified some of those which he found most surprising after the meeting.

“The current calendar has ruined every Christmas and New Year’s I can remember,” a senior resident of Mather House said in a survey response.“I lost touch with all my friends because of the calendar,” a student from Quincy House wrote.

UC president Ryan A. Petersen ’08 said that the surveys he had seen expressed similar sentiments. He pointed to an incident in which a student’s trip to Israel had been bereft of family time because of a paper assignment and another student who detailed spending Christmas Day crying because of the demands of expository writing.

Barreira said that “there’s just tons of data telling us that students feel distressed or students feel depressed.”

Over the next few days, the UC will send letters to the Harvard Corporation, the University’s executive governing board, to ask its seven members to consider calendar reform, Ragalie said.

[The calendar] isn’t something that’s inconvenient,” he said. “It’s something that is hurting people inside and hurting their academics.”

In an attempt to improve the prominence of existing resources, the legislation called for the creation of a new Web site to serve as a more accessible interface for students seeking aid.

“The biggest problem about mental health is not a lack of resources,” said Benjamin P. Schwartz ’10, one of the presenters of the legislation during the meeting yesterday evening. “It’s that people generally don’t seem to care about it—it’s not their issue, it doesn’t happen at Harvard.”

Other suggestions included better training for instructors, proctors, and peer advising fellows in the recognition of mental health issues, a program to acquaint freshmen with campus-wide mental health resources, and the pairing of incoming first-years with long-term mental health liaisons—professionals who will be available for aid throughout the undergraduate years.

—Staff writer Christian B. Flow can be reached at