SMHL Leaders Spearhead Mental Health Initiatives

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SMHL Leaders Spearhead Mental Health Initiatives 

CAMHS attendance is plummeting, and student leaders Trenfield and Boit are taking strides to reconnect students to mental health resources amidst pandemic

By GRAHAM WALTER

Over half of American college students have struggled with some form of mental illness in their university experience, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. A staggering 40% of these students refuse to seek help for their mental illness. Marcus Trenfield ‘21 and Kat Boit ‘22 from the Harvard Student Mental Health Liaison group are seeking to remedy this barrier to help, dedicating their time on campus to ensuring that students are aware of and familiar with the resources available whenever needed. After interviewing them, I gained insight as to how these student leaders make finding guidance all the more streamlined for their peers.

Both Boit and Trenfield decided to take action in their own lives to overcome their respective struggles with mental health. Having gone through the journey of learning about different resources on their own, they not only knew how to go about this process but felt inspired to share that knowledge with others in their situation. And so, they decided to take on leadership through SMHL, or the Student Mental Health Liaisons, a peer education group that connects the Harvard College community to mental health resources. SMHL is under the umbrella Harvard University Health Services systems (HUHS). Counseling and Mental Health Services (CAMHS), the facet of HUHS that deals with mental health and employs SMHL as their student voice. They raise awareness and act as immediate consultants for students that are confronted by mental health issues, directing students to the groups that would be most beneficial to contact. SMHL differentiates itself because, instead of directly counseling them, it educates students on available support, such as from Room 13, Indigo, and Response. Additionally, they build connections with other Ivies and student groups to ask the question of how they can “get the word out about different ways to raise awareness for mental health,” according to Trenfield.

I got the immediate impression that Boit and Trenfield not only excel at what they do; they also exude a deep empathy for their peers, sincerely concerned and ready to help those who contact them. Coming from West Texas, I had never participated in a discussion regarding mental health outside of my close friends before arriving at Harvard. The conversation just felt unwelcome. Boit shared a similar sentiment even from her home in New England. In her experience, there was “a very serious stigma that existed and was very present around 20 years ago” and only now are we “starting to open up the conversation” surrounding these illnesses and how physiological changes in the body are happening. 

Since students were sent home in March, the CAMHS attendance rate has plummeted, even though many students are dealing with the same pressures they had on campus. Before the semester went remote, this free mental health resource was utilized to its full capacity, and it would often take weeks to book an appointment. Now, however, Trenfield and Boit emphasize how CAMHS now has so many open spots that students calling can be addressed almost immediately. This is especially of concern, considering how the COVID-19 pandemic has brought on collective stress, incurring additional pressures on mental health. According to the UC Student Experience Survey, approximately 81.1% of respondents cited experiencing worsened emotional health. 

SMHL has been an essential force in mobilizing access to mental health resources, as Harvard has actively taken steps to break the stigma of students coming forward with mental health issues. Counseling on campus is now free, and students have access to prescribers. The shift to telemedicine may raise concerns about whether these services may be reduced in quality when no longer an in-person appointment. Nonetheless, over the course of the remote semester, the Counseling and Mental Health Services (CAMHS) has ensured that students back home won’t just receive a phone call to address their issues; rather, they are using video chats to improve the connection between prescribers and individuals. SMHL actively serves as advocates to the student body, ensuring they realize they continue to have access to these resources that have translated to an effective remote delivery. 

SMHL leader Boit also spearheaded the planning for the Ivy League Mental Health Conference, which took place on February 28, 2020, just a few weeks prior to the campus evacuation. This was hosted by the Ivy League Mental Health Coalition. 

SMHL has worked to encourage and facilitate these conversations, and they hope that if you need help but don’t know where to look, you will contact them or CAMHS weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. EST or on their 24-hour Urgent Care line at 1-617-495-5711. If you are not sure who to go to or are a student group that would like to share this service with your members, I implore you to contact SMHL via email at smhlpresident@gmail.com, or to send them a message via Facebook or Instagram. They would be happy to help in any way they can. By acknowledging mental health on campus and utilizing student support systems, we can all play a part in reducing the silent struggle faced by many students.

Repeated below is a message from Harvard Health Services regarding what symptoms of mental illnesses are.

Mental illness is an equal opportunity issue. It affects young and old, male and female, and individuals of every race, ethnic background, education level, and income level. The good news is that it can often be treated.

Signs and symptoms of mental illness depend in part on the illness. Common symptoms include

 

  • feeling down for a while
  • extreme swings in mood
  • withdrawing from family, friends, or activities
  • low energy or problems sleeping
  • often feeling angry, hostile, or violent
  • feeling paranoid, hearing voices, or having hallucinations
  • often thinking about death or suicide.

 

In some people, symptoms of a mental illness first appear as physical problems such as stomach aches, back pain, or insomnia.

Individuals with a mental illness can often ease their symptoms and feel better by talking with a therapist and following a treatment plan that may or may not include medication.

Graham Walter ‘21 (grahamwalter@college.harvard.edu) writes News for the Indy.

Illustration by Isa Gooijer ’23.