Mental-Health Breakdown: When Harvard Fails Its Students

 by Eliza Shapiro Mar 18, 2013 4:45 AM EDT  After a schizophrenic student said the…

Georgia (Mar 19, 2013)


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 After a schizophrenic student said the school failed to help her, calls for reform have escalated. But can colleges realistically both educate and heal? Eliza Shapiro investigates.

What should Harvard students get for $57,950 a year?

It’s a question that has rattled America’s most elite college and other top-tier institutions in the wake of a scathing op-ed published last month in the Harvard Crimson by a student struggling with schizophrenia.

According to the article, which was written anonymously and has received more than 4,500 Facebook likes, Harvard’s mental health services repeatedly failed to care for the student, leaving the student suicidal.

In one example, the student told a counselor about hearing voices and was encouraged “to drink chamomile tea and to practice breathing exercises to cope with stress.”

“Where else can I go?” the student wrote. “I am too sick regularly to be in class; how can I hold a job? I decided to stay as I fight for treatment. Harvard may not be willing to pay for treatment, but at least as a student I hope that they are too afraid of bad publicity to let me die should I need hospitalization.”

In the weeks since the piece was published, an occasional conversation about mental health at America’s most elite university—intensified by three apparent suicides in the last year—appears to be coalescing into a movement. At its core is the question of whether students paying record-high tuition rates can expect to get both a great education and top-notch mental-health care at a time in their lives when they are most susceptible to everything from depression and anxiety to schizophrenia. …

Other elite schools have been forced to rethink their approaches to mental health in the wake of high-profile suicides. After a freshman jumped to her death on the first night of college at Columbia this fall, students formed a version of Harvard’s mental health liaisons, working to better connect students with counselors. Students at NYU recently accused that school of failing to build a “comprehensive infrastructure for support,” even as the school erected aluminum screens in the library. In the past decade, three NYU students have committed suicide by jumping off the library’s top floor. …

Mental health experts say part of the problem for schools is that there is generally more demand than supply. Some 2.2 million students across the country sought professional counseling assistance during the past year, according to 2012 survey data from the American College Counseling Association, and there often aren’t enough therapists to fill that need. Harvard, for example, says its counselor-to-student ratio is 1:750, and that’s compared to a national average of 1:1,600.

Also, many of these students enter school having never seen a shrink before, and may have unrealistic expectations of what a therapist will do for them, says Josh Gunn, director of counseling and psychological services at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. “I have students who come in here, sit down, and ask, ‘So are you going to help me or not?’ They want help by the end of the hour. I say, ‘Yeah, I can, but your expectations are different from the reality of how this works. It’s a process.’”





A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit