A Student Mental Health Series

A Student Mental Health Series


SMHL is excited to present to you a weekly/bi-weekly editorial that will be featured in Harvard’s newspaper, The Crimson. It will cover a range of mental health topics and will be written by students themselves. Check here to see the first column written by Victoria Baena!

It began with a kind of ache—throbbing, persistent. It was a “down” period like those I’d had before, except that the “down” now crept into the rest of each day, each week, until it became my new normal. It was mental, at first; “I just think too much,” I would joke to my parents. “I have to stop thinking so big.”

Shortly into the semester, though, it spread. It became physical: panic attacks came in debilitating waves, tears threatened to pierce any conversation. I would sit curled up at the corner of my bed and the wall, knees to my chest, shaking. I would try to sleep but couldn’t. Everything took longer. I had readings to do and papers to write, but they were to be done alone, and when I was alone I could let myself crumble.

During these months, it was somehow very important to me that no one knew this was happening. I spent less and less time with people, less and less time outside my room, so I had the strength to pretend everything was fine the few hours I was not alone. I cried into my pillow so my roommates wouldn’t hear. I would sit in history lecture as a panic attack came on and blink back tears, terrified that someone would notice. I wondered how everyone but me was so fine. Knowing I needed to spend time away, I applied to study abroad, which would elicit fewer questions than “taking time off.” I continued to isolate myself, which made me feel worse, which led to further isolation: It was a vicious cycle. I had never felt so alone.

If there’s anything this past year has taught me, it is how wrong I was. I was not alone. I am not alone. It is heartbreaking that it has taken, in part, two student suicides to realize this. Harvard, I think, is realizing it too. Along with such tragedies, the past year has witnessed emerging sources of hope: a Kirkland House discussion with President Drew G. Faust during which students raised questions on mental health; a suicide panel of student and recent alumni voices; a Crimson series on mental health at Harvard; and a Tumblr devoted to the same issues.

These discussions have sought to explain and understand student mental health at Harvard, broaching topics from services at UHS to a pervading atmosphere diagnosed, eloquently and memorably as “I Am Fine.” I cannot say with any kind of certainty where Harvard’s mental health problem—because we do, indeed, have a problem—comes from. Many of us, often, are far from fine. What I can say with certainty is that the conversation must go on.

This semester, we hope to write a long series of articles in an attempt to do just that. I am writing as a member of Harvard’s Student Mental Health Liaisons, a student group founded in 2008 to engage and inform students on issues of emotional wellbeing. Since getting involved with SMHL last fall, I have been inspired by the sincerity and earnestness of each member and the group as a whole in raising awareness on a broad swath of mental health issues on and beyond campus.

There needs to be a forum and catalyst for continuing discussions of mental health, and for establishing a community that supports improving mental health at Harvard. We plan to publish regular op-eds on a variety of topics this semester. We also want to hear from students, faculty, and other members of the Harvard community, who should get in touch with us through the contact section of our Harvard SMHL website so that their voices can be heard as well.

Let us keep the topic of mental and emotional wellbeing at the forefront this semester. In different ways we have all struggled, or are struggling, or will struggle, during our years at Harvard. I don’t think we can ever fully eliminate all difficulties. But we can work toward this by approaching them with empathy, compassion, and a desire to listen. We can tackle them with the knowledge that we are not alone.

Victoria A. Baena is a History and Literature concentrator in Eliot House.


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speak up. shine on.

speak up. shine on.

suicide, depression, anxiety.
these are not invisible problems, but people like to pretend they cannot see them. these problems are not talked about and confronted, but instead kept shrouded in darkness, shoved under the rug, ignored in hopes that they will go away.
my goal with this project is to shine a light, literally, on the dialogue and conversation that needs to happen within our community in regards to suicide and mental health concerns.
i’m looking for your voice, your stories, and your thoughts to contribute to this project. i’m asking you to speak up.
click “add to the conversation” to anonymously submit your words. submit whatever you want, share your story, say what’s on your mind, add to the dialogue.
this is your chance to be heard, and for your words to shine on.

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Topic For Discussion


This is a highly sensitive post. Feel free to comment or submit a blog post and provide your thoughts on the topic.

I saw you… Harvard, fiercely unwilling to use the word suicide. As students, scholars, and human beings, we deserve the right to have a productive, honest conversation about mental health here. If that means using the word suicide, then so be it. Harvard should respect us enough to be willing to engage in a deeper, more meaningful conversation. It should value its students and their mental health. It should invest in providing better services and making sure they are available when students are in need. We as members of the community should work together to let mental health into our everyday conversations, and remove the stigma from mental health problems—it is really hard to make it through this crazy place without suffering. Yet the impetus is on our school to demonstrate its willingness to discuss, prevent, and work to stop suicides before they happen. Come on, Harvard. It’s time to stop saving face and start acting with compassion. Hit up the reply box if you agree and want to be a part of a movement to open doors to conversation, and make Harvard a better place for all of us.



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Getting Over the Slump

Looking at the problem set was like standing at the base of a mountain.  The challenge got my heart going.  I tried to stay calm, put one pencil stroke in front of the other, slowly navigate the problem set, climb the mountain.  But before I knew it I was falling.  I was flushed, hyperventilating, tears streaming down my face.  I sprung up from my chair and went to cry outside, in the dark courtyard, where no one would realize I was having a nervous breakdown.

Rinse. Repeat. Up to 4 or 5 times every week.

They call it “sophomore slump.”  No one ever talks about it, like the Quad on an admissions tour. It’s something that exists…at other places, but not here.  Here, everyone is on top of things.  At the same time my panic attacks were spiraling out of control, my roommate was taking 5 classes, getting enough sleep, and waking up early to go run every day.  What was wrong with me?  I was taking most of my meals alone in my room because I didn’t want to feel like such a failure around my seemingly less-stressed, healthier-looking friends.

The best decision I made my sophomore year was to TALK about it.  I started seeing a therapist at UHS, because I could not figure out what was wrong.  Was it that my classes were too hard?  Yes, but classes are always hard.  Was I homesick? Yes, but of course I’m going to be homesick when the alternative to freezing temperatures is a tropical beach and home-cooked meals.  Did I have good friends? Yes.  So what was really the problem?

My problem was…ME. I was so worried about what would happen if people discovered that I wasn’t perfect.  I gradually opened up to my friends.  I talked about my classes and how stressed I was feeling.  I stopped resigning myself to failure and started asking questions again.  The result of opening up to people?  I discovered that my friends still loved me even though I wasn’t perfect. That my parents were more concerned with my happiness than my GPA.  That I was not alone.

You are not alone.  Talk to someone.  Ask for help.  Remind yourself why you came to Harvard in the first place.  Rediscover your motivation.  Get involved in something you love, eliminate the things you don’t.  Forget about your resume and your GPA sometimes.  Leave your room.  Go out on Thursday. And Friday. And Saturday.  The less time you have to relax, the more you need it. Find something beautiful and wonderful every day and you will make it through.

You can be stressed and still be happy.  And if you aren’t happy, ask for help.

This entry was written anonymously by a current junior at Harvard College.

To read more Harvard community entries, click here:

Graduation Season, Award Season

Protesting Perfect

A Harvard Wellness Tutor’s Experience with OCD

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Why Sadness is the Key to True Happiness


Posted on 

The other night I felt overcome by sadness as I reflected upon all the suffering of this world.

In many ways, I have a perfect life.  Nevertheless, a part of me will always be sad as long as there is suffering in this world.

Life is bittersweet.  And that’s OK with me.  Happiness without sadness would not be complete…as long as suffering persists.

I sat with the feelings of sadness, gazing at the dark night sky.  I didn’t try to push them away.  Quite the contrary, I felt empowered by them.

Usually, we want to move away from sadness as quickly as possible.

We’re encouraged to divert ourselves from the emotion by engaging in physical activity, imagining pleasant and relaxing experiences, or looking for humor in a situation that makes us sad.  Some people, who are naturally empathetic, have decided to protect themselves from sadness and other untoward emotions by not watching the news.  I can understand why.  There’s even a danger of becoming hardened and developing “compassion fatigue” in the face of overwhelming tragedy like the recent disasters in Japan.

But I say, let your heart be broken into a million pieces.  You will be all the better for it.  Here’s why.



Sadness is not always as bad as it’s made out to be.  In fact, sadness can be the start of your journey directly to the heart of true happiness.  Here are 3 ways that sadness can help and empower you.

1.  Sadness Has the Power to Introduce a Crack in Our Idea of Reality

There is not a single person in this world that can escape from suffering.  Suffering is the fundamental characteristic of the way we lead our lives.  Failing to see our true nature, our life ends up a constant dance of attachment and aversion.  This is precisely what brings unhappiness our way.

“I like this.  I don’t like that.  I want this.  I don’t want that.”

There may be transitory moments of happiness when things go our way, we have an enjoyable sensory experience, or acquire an entrancing new possession.  But this happiness is not a long lasting one.  All the tension of striving for what we want and rejecting everything else just brings more complications and more suffering.  We’re rarely satisfied for more than a moment.  Then we’re on to achieving a new goal, having the next experience, getting a better possession, or finding the right relationship.

How about trying this – when sadness pops up, instead of running away, let her wake you up.  Sadness has the power to introduce a crack in our limited and limiting version of reality.  Maybe life isn’t all about wanting, getting, accomplishing, and possessing. Maybe there is another way.

And even if you know this already, sadness can sing you an even deeper song.

A moment of sadness can be marvelous indeed. You might see clearly for the very first time. Or you might get fantastically woken up once again.  Either way, let sadness spark your life with new meaning and purpose.

2. Let Your Heart Break Into a Million Pieces

When sadness breaks open our heart, we become fully human.

By having the courage to touch  our own pain and suffering, we can touch and feel the pain and suffering of the entire world.  We see:  your suffering and my suffering are the same.  Suffering is a common thread that unites all of humanity.  From recognizing this simple truth, a profound feeling of interconnectedness can arise.  This sense of interconnection can bring about an unspeakable joy.  It can ignite the wish to bring happiness to all others.

3.  Nothing Ever Stays the Same for Even a Moment

Sadness comes when things change – a relationship ends, someone dies, we’re fired from a job, illness descends, a friend is physically hurt, a disaster happens.  Sadness introduces us to impermanence and can help us learn to let go.

Change is the only constant in life.  Until we learn to accept change gracefully, we’ll always suffer.  There’s a blessing in embracing the beauty of impermanence.  Through doing so, we will come to value every precious moment of this life and live in a far saner and more fulfilling way.


The quote I’ve chosen for the reflection this week is a favorite of the Dalai Lama’s.  It shows us how sadness can redouble our determination to be of service to others.

“For as long as space exists

And sentient beings endure,

May I too remain,

To dispel the misery of the world.”



Now, I’m not suggesting that anyone get stuck on sadness – that would be depression.  Acknowledging, expressing, and resolving grief leads to greater health and happiness.  Repressed grief leads to contraction.

At the same time, we don’t need to push sadness away as soon as it pays a visit.  Sadness can be the doorway to profound understanding.  I feel empowered by sadness because it helps me see what really matters in life:  kindness, love, and compassion.

How do you look at sadness in your life?  Has sadness every brought more meaning or happiness into your life?

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Facebook Launches Tool to Report Suicidal Behavior

(Reuters) – Facebook launched a new suicide prevention tool on Tuesday, giving users a direct link to an online chat with counselors who can help, the company said.


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Fighting Pain with Pain

When students harm themselves the marks often go unseen, but the percentage of undergraduates who have intentionally injured themselves in their lifetimes is stunning.

More than 15 percent of undergraduates nationwide have harmed themselves and 6.8 percent have done so in the past year, according to a study published in the Journal of American College Health in November.

Harvard’s Director of Behavioral Health and Counseling Paul Barreira said Harvard’s rate is slightly lower than the national average, but he declined to offer a more specific figure. Barreira served as a researcher on the study.

These national statistics are reflected in the lives of three Harvard undergraduates.

Interviews with these students, who have harmed themselves during their time at Harvard—two by cutting and another by inflicting non-scarring injuries—reveal that self-harm is a real phenomenon even within the ivory tower. They say that while Harvard offers a number of ways to seek help—whether professional, student-run, or simply social—often the fear of repercussions and an intense concern for privacy leave them to cope alone.

By David Song

—-> Read more here


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Crimson editorial: Are We Fine?

Click below to read full article:

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When we lose someone: shock, grief and community

Holiday loss of a family member

On Christmas Eve, my family received shocking news.  A family member had died suddenly of a heart attack at fifty years of age.  My grandmother, who is herself in ill health, took the news with special difficulty.  She began crying in the most disturbing sort of way, the sort of weeping one is sure will never end.  The tragic news overwhelmed her, and she felt the death was more than she could bear.

Fortunately, however, because almost everyone in my family lives in upstate South Carolina, it was possible for a really beautiful thing to happen:  my grandmother and all of her sisters, their kids and grandkids, all my aunts and uncles and cousins and their friends, joined together during that initial period of shock.  The grief was only beginning, of course, but I can say for sure that in those first few days during Christmas, my whole family joined together to withstand the shock of Debbie’s death.  Day and night, everyone stuck together.  We brought one another strength.

Room 13 and when my buddy Matt King died

Last spring, I received news that a great friend of mine had been killed on his bicycle in traffic.  His name was Matt King, he had brilliant curly red hair and piercing blue eyes, and he was a person of conviction, altruism, and love.

I was in the Science Center computer lab when I found out, and I couldn’t contain my emotions.  I was crying, and crying in public is not a forte of mine.  So I packed my things and started walking through the Yard back to Mather.  I was still crying when I passed by Thayer Hall, which houses not just freshmen, but also the peer counseling group Room 13 in its basement.  Wishing not to be crying out in the open, I found my way down to the basement and down the hall and knocked on the door of Room 13.

Two students answered the door—it was around 11 pm—and I was able to talk confidentially a little bit to calm myself down.  They had a big comfy couch and a huge stuffed Tiger (which made me laugh because Matt King was a Clemson Tiger in his undergraduate days).  After a little bit, I took a deep breath and finished walking back to Mather.  I was thankful Room 13 was there that night.  At his funeral, all of his friends and family, we were able to mourn together, which brought us strength.

Community and grief

Of course, at the end of the day, no matter our heroic efforts, tragedies will continue to happen.  We lost one of our own this week at Harvard College, and it has sent shockwaves through our community.  A really beautiful thing happened in this case as well: a memorial service was organized in no time, not only to honor Ilya, but also in acknowledgement that with community comes strength.

If you are reading this and you are struggling—whether with grief over some sort of loss or with depression and anxiety over day-to-day living—you are not alone.  Reach out to those around, whether to friends and family or to more formal ‘resources’ like Room 13 and UHS.  I am confident there are few things worse for grief, depression, anxiety and the like than isolation in a college dorm room.  Remember, with community comes strength.  Don’t be afraid to reach out.

If you’re not sure how, feel free to look at the “Harvard Resources” at the top of this page or you can even email me personally at  I’d be happy to share with you what’s available on campus.

Wishing you wellness,

Seth Riddley, Mather SMHL

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A student shares his experience getting treatment for depression, post one

I was a fairly well-adjusted kid from diapers all the way through high school, so it was a shock to myself and everyone around me when I became depressed for the first time as a freshman in college.  Not that I wasn’t going through some tough stuff.  At Harvard, I was living far away from home for the first time, and my parents had just gotten divorced.

I was surprised to hear the same story from some of my classmates.  Even one of my roommates, his parents were divorcing, too.  My roommate seemed to be able to handle things better than I did.  I made lots of really good friends in my entryway really quickly, so they were really wonderful to me during those first few weeks of school.  They’d stay up late listening to me, and they were really kind.  If I wanted to be with somebody, there was always somebody around.

But things got worse.  In my room with the door shut, for the first time in my life, I became suicidal.  It was such a bizarre experience.  I remembered talking to friends in high school who were suicidal and trying to comfort them, but I never really understood how somebody could want to die like that.  But, now I understood.  I felt like a different person, almost.

Being someone who is really honest with his loved ones, they became very worried at how I was talking.  If I didn’t answer the phone, it was like an emergency.  Finally, I got to the point where I wasn’t eating, I didn’t care one way or another about my classes, and the things I was saying made my friends and family worry.  At that point, I went to my proctor (who was wonderful–took me to Starbucks to talk about things), and she referred me to one of the freshman resident deans (who was also wonderful–I was lucky).  They thought I should go talk to somebody at Mental Health Services, and I went.  The lady I talked to also was wonderful.  Everybody was really compassionate.  I know not everyone has such great people around during hard times, so I’m very thankful I did.

Because I was suicidal, the lady I talked to at Mental Health Services asked me what I thought about going to a hospital for more intensive treatment.  That really struck fear in me, and I didn’t know what to say.  The lady reassured me that I would be treated well at the hospital and that it was the best place for me to be at the time.  So, I said OK.  I went outside and got in a cab with my resident dean, who bought me lunch because I hadn’t eaten anything.

I’ll write more about my experience in a future post.  If anybody out there is depressed and reading this, I hope you know you’re not the only one.  People get through what you’re experiencing.  Stay hopeful.

Alexander Sheppard is a student at Harvard University.  He is writing under a pseudonym.

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