Putting Harvard to the Stress Test

Rosa Huang

Part III of a three-part series on mental health at Harvard. Part I was published on Dec. 10, and Part II on Dec. 12.

When Harvard University President Drew G. Faust sat down with students in the intimate Kirkland House Junior Common Room in mid-October, much of the talk centered on her book on the Civil War and her recent appearance on “The Colbert Report.” But one student stood up to ask a more serious question.

Trevor N. Coyle ’14 said that he had heard of long delays in care at University Health Services’ overtaxed mental health clinic. He said that those in need of help might never seek that medical attention because as Harvard students, “they feel like they’re too strong” to admit a mental health problem. And he alluded to the three student deaths this year alone, and a suicide rate at Harvard College that is two or more times higher than the national college average.

“Given some recent events,” he said, “I guess I’m interested in seeing whether you think the University should take a preventative measure in terms of mental health.”

Faust responded, “This is a very stressful place.... It is something that is very much on our minds.”


This year marked by three tragedies has also seen an uptick in efforts by students and administrators to take on the issue of mental wellbeing at Harvard. On panels and online forums, in email and in person, students and administrators are working to identify ways to provide students with the mental health support they need.


Dean of Harvard College Evelynn M. Hammonds echoed Faust’s diagnosis of Harvard’s stressful culture in an interview in mid-November.

“It’s something that permeates the air here,” Hammonds said. “People are always stressed out, and I don’t think that’s a good thing.”

Earlier this semester, Hammonds launched a committee to examine the issue. The Workgroup on Student Stress, headed by UHS director Paul J. Barreira and Adams House master Judith S. Palfrey ’67, will consider whether the University is providing enough support for students, according to Hammonds.

“What do you do when you get stressed out? Where do you go? What kinds of things do you do to keep yourself well? What sorts of wellness programs do we need to have?” she says, listing questions the group will probe.

The committee will report back to Hammonds in the spring with recommendations for improving campus culture.

While the working group studies the issue, some students are taking matters into their own hands now rather than waiting for administrators’ opinions.


Smile beaming from her face, Arleen B. Aguasvivas ’15 seems out of place as she navigates the Kirkland dining hall. With paper deadlines and final exams nearing, the rest of the 10 p.m. crowd is buried in textbooks or tapping away at their laptops.


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