In addition to stress in their home lives, many have struggled with health and safety issues associated with working on campus, teaching and learning, both remotely and in person. Additionally, students have had to cope with the unique stresses of life away from home and academic pressures without the traditional levels of support and comfort offered by social activities, casual daily contact with professors, classmates, class and friends.
The Gazette spoke with Barbara LewisHead of Counseling and Mental Health Services (CAMHS), and david abrahamsondirector of CAMHS Longwood Medical Clinic, to discuss the very real struggles with mental health that so many people are experiencing right now, as well as the resources available to the Harvard community to help them cope.
GAZETTE: What realities are students facing right now when it comes to mental health?
BARBARA LEWIS: The pandemic has exacerbated the growing stress students are feeling on campus. There have been so many losses, and for our young students transitioning to a new place, very real disruptions throughout the developmental timeline. Fear of uncertainty, lack of predictability, lack of structure and missing normative milestones, such as degrees and junior semesters abroad, force young people to adapt so quickly and in new and unexpected ways .
For about 10 years before the pandemic hit, student mental health has been increasingly challenged due to a multitude of factors, and colleges and universities across the country have been unable to to meet the demand for services.
As we all reflect on how best to support our student communities, we strive to help individuals think more consciously about mental health, and this will continue to be the case post-pandemic. Yesterday I was reading about people wanting to get back to normal, but when it comes to mental health, we need a new normal, where each of us understands the need to be in control of our own well-being and are aware of the tools that are available to be able to do this. This is so important to the students, as well as our faculty and staff. And this understanding of personal responsibility must be part of a holistic, public health or systems approach that signals, more broadly, a paradigm shift that prioritizes mental wellness and prevention.
DAVID ABRAMSON: The dedensification of campus and the increase in remote work and study over the past two years has been particularly difficult for any group of students entering a program that is new to them, because much of what they go through historically was cohort-based. They get to know other students and develop strong friendships. In many ways, it’s easier to get through a tough situation when you’re going through the same thing with other people you feel connected to. And our students missed some of those connections, even when they returned to campus, as COVID has forced colleges and universities to limit many social activities and impose restrictions on other types of outlets that are positive in terms of staying mentally healthy, such as going to the gym and exercising. Many students do not know how to express themselves socially.
At Harvard’s Longwood Medical Area, graduate students are uniquely challenged as they reconsider the career path they have chosen, even as they complete studies to prepare for careers in academia. or health care, as they see firsthand the increased stress that comes with being in those areas during a pandemic.
All of these stresses mean that, clinically, we see more and more people who show symptoms of depression, people who feel tired and unmotivated and sleep more or less, gain weight, drink alcohol, smoke marijuana, and we’ve seen many more people with concentration problems.
GAZETTE: With all these considerations around isolation, how important is it that the University decided to bring the majority of students back to campus, despite the spread of the Omicron variant?
ABRAMSON: All in all, it’s definitely so important to be back for the human interaction, the interpersonal connection, the camaraderie that develops when you’re around other people. When people are more isolated, they don’t get the feedback or kind of validation that they get from both talking to other people and seeing other people. Of course, there is also more creativity and a better exchange of ideas when we are together in person. Being on campus also helps restore routines and, for many of us, accountability. If you have to be somewhere, there is often an innate sense of necessity and purpose.
GAZETTE: Are there any specific resources in place as students return to campus this semester that they should be aware of, and where can they find them?
the Wellness and Health Promotion Center has a wealth of resources and activities available to community members. And students should definitely go to their respective student affairs office, to see what wellness programs they have in place, because often schools do something really specific for their students.
And knowing that academic stress can have a big impact on well-being, students should remember to explore the offerings of the Academic Resource Centerwhich can help them develop high-level skills to become more effective adult learners.
the Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging also presents great opportunities to participate in conversations with affinity groups, and I encourage community members to subscribe to their newsletter or check out their website to learn more.
If someone is experiencing something more urgent, they can call the main CAMHS 24/7 number at 617-495-2042 to connect with a counselor or to book an appointment,
GAZETTE: Are there also Longwood-specific resources?
ABRAMSON: We have both psychiatrists or prescribers and therapists who work in person at Longwood. We also have a Student Support Group, specifically for BIPOC students at Longwood, which meets regularly. It is important to know that all CAMHS resources – at Longwood and Cambridge – are available to all members of the Harvard community, regardless of where you study or work.
GAZETTE: During the pandemic, telehealth appointments were available for community members, and last summer the new student mental health support line CAMHS Cares was launched, where students could connect directly with a 24/7 certified advisor. Are these resources still options?
Lewis: Absoutely. In fact, many students have really appreciated the telemedicine offerings, which have broken down some barriers to access. We have more participation in groups now due to the removal of the travel time barrier. Telehealth provides flexibility for those with busy lives, and so yes, those options will remain in place. And our community has really benefited from CAMHS Cares: from July 1 to November 30, we received 1,450 calls. We received over 100 calls during the two week winter break, which is an unprecedented number.
ABRAMSON: CAMHS Cares has been so important because it gives students access to someone immediately; they can call and push a button and be connected with a licensed mental health counsellor; whereas in the past, there were several stages. Second, it is available 24/7. Finally, the people who work on the phone lines are very good at assessing and helping a person determine what resources are available for the future, but also helping them in the moment with coping strategies, so that they can defuse a difficult situation. .
GAZETTE: When should someone use CAMHS Cares?
ABRAMSON: There are a variety of reasons people call. It could be something very dangerous, like having suicidal thoughts, or general worries and concerns. It shouldn’t be that serious. It can be someone who says, “Look, I’m going home with my family, and we have a conflict. I don’t know what I should do. How to handle the situation? or “I’m worried about my friend.” I don’t know how to tell them about my concerns,” which don’t have to be life-threatening or immediate, but they are urgent. So maybe this is something they need to talk to someone about soon and not wait for a date.
GAZETTE: Do you have anything else to add?
ABRAMSON: It is so important that we take care of each other in these deeply difficult times. If you recognize a friend is in trouble, call CAMHS Cares and get advice, or recommend your friend reach out. People need to know they are not alone.
I’ve said it several times to students this week alone: Harvard wants you to succeed, and we want you to have a positive experience. If you are having difficulty with your studies or your mental health, programs are in place to help you. Contact us and we’ll do everything we can to provide you with the resources you need to succeed.