the saying “all press is good press” rings true, mental health
issues have had quite a successful press run of late. From the
popularity of A Beautiful Mind, the dramatization of Princeton
University professor John Nash’s struggle with schizophrenia,
to the highly publicized suicide of MIT sophomore Elizabeth Shin
(and the ensuing legal battle) mental illness was, very literally,
on the brain this year.
In the wake of the media blitz and a real need for better mental
health services on college campuses, many student run organizations
have sprung up to address this growing epidemic. While these groups
differ in their approaches and configurations, they all evoke
a common tenor: mental illness must be understood and dealt with
Sarah Ramer, Harvard ’03, is co-chair of a student created and
run organization called Mental Health Awareness and Advocacy Group
(MHAAG). After two of her floor mates attempted to commit suicide
during her freshman year, Ramer says she was confounded by the
lack of open dialog about mental illness.
people on my floor out of 24 people tried to kill themselves and
there was very little said about it. It seemed like there was
very little said in general about mental illnesses. I just in
general always thought it would be nice if a group of people came
to the freshman study groups and talked about [mental illness].
I thought that’s what I want to be involved in, a group by students
for students,” Ramer said.
Ramer discovered that such an organization had been created in
1997 after a student wrote a piece in the Harvard newspaper The
Crimson about her experience with mental illness. The piece
generated such a positive response that several students, including
the author of the piece, decided to form a mental health awareness
group, MHAAG. Ramer says the group had “fallen into disrepair”
since their graduation but thanks to her and others’ efforts has
enjoyed a renewed success and presence on Harvard’s campus.
MHAAG is one of a number of relatively new groups of this nature.
Brown University has a counseling network called BSPAN; at Columbia
University, a group called Students Against Silence (SAS) was
developed this year to both respond to suicides and lead a proactive
“campus climate change,” to name a few. But while SAS and MHAAG
are student run and broadly focused, a mental health task force
formed at MIT this year, claims students, administrators, and
faculty to its staff and is more immediate in its aims.
Efrat Shavitz, MIT ’02, a student chair on the task force, says
the group was designed to undertake what ended up being a Herculean
task: evaluating the preexisting mental health apparati at MIT.
surveyed 1000 students and had very particular concerns that mainly
fell under the point of accessibility. The support services that
are on campus themselves are really good and there are multiple
entry points, but the coordination of these points isn’t good.
We developed recommendations on how [these systems could be coordinated.”
The students also wanted evening hours because they have classes
on a 9-5 schedule, faster appointment times, and better training
for some of the people,” Shavitz said.
Shavitz says that she and the other members of the task force
took these concerns and prioritized them and developed a list
of recommendations, many of which have already been implemented
or are being implemented this summer.
Despite their groups’ different approaches, Ramer and Shavitz
espouse similar beliefs about the state of mental health affairs
on college campuses. Both explain that their groups are not designed
to simply address suicide or depression.
is always at the back of your mind because you know it could come
to that,” Ramer said. “I try to be very clear about there are
other mental illnesses out there: obsessive compulsive disorder,
for example. Other mental illnesses can inflict the same pain
and damage as depression.”
Shavitz says she dislikes the term “suicide prevention” because
“you can’t necessarily prevent suicide, you can setup all of your
support systems in such a way that gives people all the help they
could get. Our main objective was to look at the safety net available
see how we could maximize it.”
Both suggest that the apparent rise in the number of college age
students afflicted with mental illness has more to do with the
age group and the effectiveness of modern medicine than a fundamental
change in the college campus milieu.
students who wouldn’t have made it to college before because of
their mental illnesses are making it to college now because of
medications that control the illness,” Ramer said. “A lot of students
are entering college with illnesses.”
Shavitz also says that she believes the “trend will continue to
grow” unless colleges and universities start dealing with mental
illness in a frank and open manner.
the past, [mentally ill students made up] a relatively small population
so colleges did a very good job of brushing the subject under
the rug. It was a closed mouth sort of policy,” Shavitz said.
Many students find an exclusively administrative approach to mental
health issues overly antiseptic and out of touch with real student
needs. Ramer says that even the Harvard administration’s most
earnest attempts to reach out to students were often met with
provost’s office put together this really nice brochure about
depression. I was in the mailroom and when people found it, they
tossed it in the trash, they didn’t care what it had to say or
what it was about,” Ramer said.
Since her freshman year, Ramer has been a firm believer in the
power of the personal testimonial.
my freshman year we had some students come and tell us stories
about how they knew they were gay. I was struck by how frank they
were. If you were struggling with the issue, you could relate
to them and feel that it was ok. If you weren’t struggling with
it, you could see that they looked just like you or me,” Ramer
said. “We should have the same approach to mental health issues.
Students should tell their own stories.”
Ramer and Shavitz emphasize that cooperation with administrators
is key to the success of any mental health or awareness program.
MHAAG has worked closely with Harvard administrators, particularly
the office of the provost, and the task force at MIT is comprised
of undergraduates, graduates, faculty, and administrators. Shavitz
says this cooperation has been integral to task force’s ability
to objectively analyze the problem at MIT and that mental health
cannot be the exclusive province of concerned students.#
Glassberg is a student at Columbia College and an intern at Education
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