For Sara Valente, the transition from high school to her freshman year at Harvard was rocky. She was homesick, anxious about making new friends and, as she puts it, “obsessively comparing myself to my classmates.”
“The stress of Harvard quickly overwhelmed me,” the computer science major explains. “I felt I had nowhere to turn.”
After a year, the teen reached out to the Ivy League school’s on-campus mental health providers and began attending weekly therapy sessions. She also met with a psychiatrist who diagnosed her with anxiety and depression, the two most common concerns brought to professionals at campus counseling centers, according to a 2017 report by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health.
Treatment at counseling centers has been found to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression in students, according to the report, and the past four years have seen a growing number of students present these concerns. Prior reports have found that demand for campus treatment centers was rising faster than enrollment growth at universities across the country.
But many students still don’t get the help they need. For one thing, campuses often lack the resources found at well-endowed schools like Harvard. When schools do have services available for students, it’s not always obvious how to access them. And stigma surrounding mental health issues can deter young people from speaking up and reaching out.
Students like Valente, however, are taking action to improve access to care and address the culture that makes their peers reluctant to seek help. Some have formed clubs and support groups, others educate fellow students about mental health offerings on campus. And new research suggests that these efforts have made a difference.
Valente’s experience inspired her to join the Student Mental Health Liaisons, which serves as a link between Harvard’s mental health resources and the student population. A rising senior, Valente now serves as the co-president of the organization.
“At Harvard, we’re surrounded by high-achieving students who seem to not break a sweat, who are excelling at everything from academics to sports and extracurricular,” says the group’s other co-president, Sofia Cigarroa Kennedy. “It can be isolating to feel like you’re the only one who is having a hard time, but in reality everyone has something that is going on.”
For many students, their first brush with mental health challenges will happen on campus, according to Dr. Marcia Morris, author of The Campus Cure: A Parent’s Guide to Mental Health and Wellness for College Students.