Harvard Students: “Widespread Anxiety, Depression, and Loneliness”

The Harvard University administration on July 23, 2020 released the Report of the Task Force on Managing Student Mental Health, which found that Harvard students are experiencing “rising levels of depression and anxiety disorders, and high and widespread levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and other conditions.” The report made eight recommendations and 30 sub-recommendations for improving the university’s support for student mental health.

Harvard University

The 46-page report described a toxic campus culture characterized by stressful academic and social competition, overwhelming workloads, unhealthy faculty-student connections, lack of sleep, isolation and loneliness, fear of failure, financial pressures, worries about job prospects, stigma around mental health, and confusion about when, how, and where to seek help with mental health concerns. The report identified shortcomings in clinical support services.

“People in power should demonstrate that they care about mental health, and I think a cultural change within Harvard as a whole would be important,” said an undergraduate student focus group participant quoted in the report.

The report said that undergraduates reported high levels of stress, overwork, concern about measuring up to peers, and inability to maintain healthy coping strategies. It also found that extracurricular activities at Harvard often represented another source of competition and stress.

Graduate and professional students described high levels of isolation, uncertainty about academic and career prospects, and, among those in PhD programs, financial insecurity and concerns about their relation to advisors, the report said.

The task force was convened by Provost Alan M. Garber and co-chaired by sociology professor Mario Small, Arts and Sciences Dean Emma Dench, and psychology professor Matt Nock. It was led by a 13-member steering committee made up of 10 mostly senior Harvard administrators and faculty members, and three external experts. Eight undergraduate and graduate students served on two working groups alongside administrators and faculty members.

The task force examined data on Harvard’s mental health services, analyzed national and campus surveys, and heard from focus groups representing undergraduate, graduate students, professional students, faculty, and staff. The review was conducted from February 2019 to April 2020. As the task force had completed most of its work before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the report does not recommend pandemic-specific response actions.

The task force’s eight main recommendations:

  • Create a permanent mental health team to implement recommendations, facilitate cross-campus collaboration, produce an annual report, and distribute information on student mental health to students, faculty, and staff.
  • Launch a one-year campaign focused on mental health awareness and culture change.
  • Institute an annual follow-up messaging program focused on mental health awareness and culture change.
  • Examine making Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services (CAMHS) more accessible to students.
  • Examine addressing mental health, sexual climate, inclusiveness, isolation, and sense of belonging holistically.
  • Address potential service gaps between the Academic Resource Center, which provides academic support, and CAMHS, which provides mental health counseling.
  • Examine how to reduce stress caused by the process of competing for entry into extracurricular activities.
  • Provide clear guidance to faculty and graduate students to ease stress caused by advisor-advisee relationships.

Notable sub-recommendations:

  • Encourage open discussion about mental health conditions and struggles; the report cites imposter syndrome (feelings of inadequacy despite success), duck syndrome (appearing calm despite struggling), and Sleep Olympics (glorifying hard work at the expense of healthy sleep).
  • Frame mental health awareness campaigns in terms of flourishing (through healthy behaviors), not illness, toward achieving a cultural shift.
  • Incorporate strong mental health messaging into course syllabi.
  • Consider student well-being in setting assignment deadlines.
  • Consider instituting regular faculty check-ins with students.
  • Distribute a road map for navigating mental health support options.
  • Organize events and discussions that allow students to discuss their challenges openly with others.
  • Improve clinical wait times for initial consultations and ongoing therapy.
  • Ensure counseling staff diversity.
  • Improve the process for referring students to community mental health providers and assisting with related financial costs.
  • Explore the use of digital clinical assessment and intervention tools.
  • Examine how to address mental health, sexual climate, inclusiveness, isolation, and sense of belonging holistically.
  • Explore providing a broader faculty advising support network for students.
  • Encourage programs and departments to develop formal and transparent “rights and responsibilities” guidelines and workplace expectations.
  • Encourage mentorship training for faculty and examine expanding incorporating mentoring into faculty evaluation.
  • Improve understanding of student financial need and examine ways of signposting resources for students in acute financial need.

In assessing the state of student mental health, the report noted that rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions are rising nationally among college students and young adults as a whole. The report went on to describe an increasingly bleak outlook for today’s generation of college students:

“Students across the country are facing structural realities dramatically different from those experienced by previous cohorts. The costs of higher education and housing have soared. The planet has warmed dramatically, and the economic, environmental, and social consequences, now too numerous and too frequent to ignore, have dimmed the aspirations of many who will be forced to deal with the repercussions over their lifetimes. The academic labor market has changed, and while the number of PhD’s has risen dramatically, the number of tenure-track job openings in many fields has shrunk. The changing immigration policy landscape in the U.S. and other countries has unsettled many students and their families. And students were facing all these conditions before the world was forced to confront its worst pandemic nearly a century.”

Undergraduate Students

The report said that from 2014 to 2018, Harvard undergraduates reporting that they have or think they may have depression increased from 22 percent to 31 percent; and those reporting that they have or think they may have an anxiety disorder increased from 19 percent to 30 percent.

In a survey of first year students completed in the first week of classes, 62 percent of students scored in the high range on the UCLA loneliness scale and 61 percent reported frequent or intense feelings of being an imposter, according to the task force. “These concerns do not seem to abate over the course of students’ collegiate careers and likely increase (or fail to buffer against) the negative effects of stress,” the report said.

The task force reported that students do not seem to believe they are getting a clear and consistent message about mental health from the university.

Various forms of stigma continue to prevent students from seeking help, the report said. “Students from families or cultures in which mental illness is stigmatized may find it more difficult to recognize when they are struggling, to seek help, and to get either emotional or financial support from their families while in treatment,” the report said. “And for high-achieving students more generally, it can be a challenge to admit when things are not going well.”

According to the report, students cited the possibility of being put on an involuntary leave as a reason not to seek help.

“Students reported hesitation to disclose their mental health challenges to Harvard-employed counselors and others in the administration, fearing the possibility that they would be asked to leave if they were deemed ‘unsafe’ by CAMHS,” the report said. “Students noted that they may censor what they say to a counselor, or avoid CAMHS altogether, if they think they might be placed on a leave of absence. This situation may leave some of the students most at risk fearful of being open about the depth of their problems.”

Graduate and Professional Students

The report found that Harvard graduate and professional students struggled “within a culture that does not appear to prioritize wellness.” And while graduate students across units struggled with many of the same issues, the report said, schools largely worked in isolation to address the mental health issues for their own student populations.

Approximately 23.6 percent of graduate students responding to a depression screening survey exhibited symptoms of moderate to severe depression, the report said. Similarly, approximately 23.1 percent of graduate students who responded to an anxiety screening survey exhibited symptoms of moderate to severe generalized anxiety.

Across campus, graduate students struggled to establish meaningful connections with peers and mentors, grappled with the feeling that they do not measure up to others in their programs, and worried about making ends meet and finding a job after they graduate, the report said.

Task force focus groups conducted with graduate and professional student populations revealed a strong sense of overcommitment, intense workloads, a feeling that self-worth is linked to academic output, and “that sleep and mental health must be sacrificed for academic success.”

Financial hardship is a major source of stress for many graduate and professional students, the report found. “Students who accumulated debt throughout their graduate studies—in many cases adding to existing debt from undergraduate studies—worried about being able to repay their loans and about the extent to which their loan burden could limit their career choices,” the report said.

Moreover, the task force found, graduate and professional students worried about finding a job after graduation, and many felt pressure to conform to certain expectations about the type of career they will pursue. “Recent years have seen a shrinking of tenure-track positions in many disciplines and fields, causing high levels of stress and anxiety,” the report said.

Students have concerns about displaying weakness or vulnerability in front of both peers and faculty, the task force found. “While student well-being can be bolstered by relationships with faculty that are both personally and professionally supportive, students worry about opening up to faculty who may be in a position to evaluate them either now or in the future,” the report said.

Graduate student surveys revealed a strong correlation between the relationship between a PhD student and their advisor and scores on screening tools for depression, anxiety, self-esteem, and imposter phenomenon, the report said.

In surveys and task force conversations, imposter syndrome emerged as a major factor in graduate students’ mental health, and is likely both a cause and an effect of loneliness, the report said.

Clinical Knowledge, Access and Barriers

CAMHS increased its professional staff by approximately 40 percent since 2015, and as of April 2020 employed 47 mental health clinicians. The CAMHS student to staff ratio is roughly 468 to 1, within the range report by other leading institutions of higher education, according to the report.

Nonetheless, the report said, students who participated in focus groups continued to report difficulty getting a CAMHS appointment in a timely manner, whether for an initial consultation or for ongoing therapy.

Students also cited difficulties when seeking off-campus mental health support. Some reported calling numerous providers only to find that they do not accept insurance, are not taking new patients, or in some cases just do not return the student’s call. “For a student in distress, encountering such hurdles could lead them to give up on finding help,” the report said.

Read: Cornell University Mental Health Review Final Report

Download: Harvard University’s Report of the Task Force on Managing Student Mental Health

“This Would be a Nice Place for a Rape”

Sexual assault and sexual harassment are widespread occurrences at American universities and colleges. Student outrage over a case at Harvard University is spotlighting an equally disturbing problem: how some campus administrators have tolerated sexual abuse by powerful academicians, and thereby perpetuated broadly unsafe conditions for students, staff, and even junior untenured professors.

Harvard’s handling of the case of political scientist Jorge Domínguez, a leading expert in the Latin American studies field, was exposed in an important February 27 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle reported on the stories of women who charged that Domínguez exercised his power as a star tenured professor over three decades to physically harass and/or pursue sexual relationships with them.

In one chilling incident, as Domínguez and Terry Karl, an untenured female professor in his Government Department, walked through a wooded campus area returning from an event, Domínguez allegedly told Karl, “This would be a nice place for a rape.”

The Chronicle reports in detail on how Domínguez’s constant advances eventually forced Karl to leave Harvard in the mid-1980s for Stanford University, where she earned tenure and served as director of the Center for Latin American Studies for more than a decade.

Karl reported the harassment to Harvard administrators, who at one point actually found Domínguez guilty of serious misconduct and imposed temporary penalties—stripping him of administrative duties. Yet, afterwards, Harvard kept promoting Domínguez—to vice provost for international affairs, and director of the prestigious Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.

According to the Chronicle, a total of 18 female professors, students, and staff members have now come forward with allegations of Domínguez’s sexual misconduct. On March 4, more than 35 years after Karl first reported Domínguez’s behavior to Harvard administrators, the university placed Domínguez on leave and announced an investigation into the allegations. On March 6—a week after the Chronicle story appeared—Domínguez resigned from Harvard, ending a 45-year career on the faculty.

Harvard President Derek Bok, and Henry Rosovsky, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, expressed concern and sympathy for Karl, but the university’s handling of Domínguez at the time struck her as inadequate and laughable.

The Chronicle reported on how Karl’s problems at Harvard had generated serious concerns among fellow Latin American-studies scholars. In 1984, a dozen of them from various universities wrote to Bok and Rosovsky, saying they could not recommend that any of their students attend Harvard until there was “absolute assurance that they will not face undue risk of harassment.”

In his dismissive response, Rosovsky told the scholars that their letter “displays a degree of moral arrogance that is unusual even by the unfortunate standards prevailing in the academic profession. It pretends to a detailed and objective knowledge of what happened here that you plainly do not have.”

In a 1991 essay in support of Anita Hill, who accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment, Karl argued that filing a sexual harassment complaint often “pits a person against an institution that is predisposed to defend the accused.” Referring to her own harassment case, without mentioning Domínguez by name, she wrote that she had felt “forced to choose between pleasing this man or losing everything I had worked for.”

As the Chronicle reported:

Karl believes Harvard administrators played down her many complaints, attempting to mollify her rather than dealing with a difficult situation head-on. Harvard refused, as some universities still do, to publicly name the person responsible. They also let him stay, and promoted him, which sent a signal that Karl believes discouraged others from coming forward. If they hadn’t done that, “then these women who experienced harassment in the 1990s and 2000s, it wouldn’t have happened, or they would have known that someone would be punished if they were harassed,” she says. “That’s the great enabling. It’s why the silence is so terrible.”

The Chronicle report on Harvard’s handling of the Domínguez case stirred immediate outrage among alumni, faculty, and students. Hundreds signed an open letter to Harvard President Drew Faust demanding that the university apologize:

When students arrive at Harvard, they are told that the university ‘is committed to maintaining a safe and healthy educational work environment’. Over the past three decades, Harvard has failed to live up to this commitment. The Chronicle has reported that at least three women informed human resources of misconduct by Jorge Dominguez. In these cases, as in others, Harvard has not kept its promise to protect those most at risk. The burden of responsibility to hold abusers accountable does not lie with the victims. It lies with those in positions of authority. We feel an apology is necessary to rebuild trust and to show that the university unequivocally supports those who come forward.

We have all been shocked by the allegations against Jorge Dominguez. Now we call on you to take bold and immediate action to address the power structures that have left junior faculty, students, and staff vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

The signatories expressed their solidarity with Karl and other women who came forward and spoke to the Chronicle: “We respect and admire the courage it requires to share your story.”

More than 200 undergraduates led by 59 students in the Government Department wrote an angry letter to the Government faculty, calling the university administration’s failure to take appropriate action against Domínguez “reprehensible” and making a series of demands addressing the underlying problems:

We feel deeply betrayed by the fact that he was allowed to continue teaching at this university, putting students, faculty, and staff at risk for so long despite the fact that he was censured for sexual harassment thirty-five years ago.

Both Domínguez’s crimes and the department and the administration’s failure to take action for years are reprehensible. But they are also telling signs that the Government Department (and Harvard at large) are home to misogyny, rape culture, and exploitative power dynamics– problems that run much deeper than any single perpetrator of sexual or gender-based violence or any single failure to act to keep our community safe.

More than 100 Government graduate students, in their own letter to the faculty, expressed anger over the administration’s response to the Chronicle story. The letter followed a meeting between graduate students and Government Department Chair Jennifer L. Hochschild:

“We went into the meeting hoping for answers. We left disappointed, disillusioned, and, for many of us, angry. The meeting communicated a message of equivocation, powerlessness, and an unwillingness to commit to addressing this issue or instituting any significant changes within the Department.”