Most days, I can’t help but fixate on my hair. Amidst the social isolation of a reality colored by COVID-19, I find myself constantly teasing, twisting, and tugging at it. Sometimes, I fear that I’ll end up running my fingers through my hair only to come up short and find that it, and by extension, myself, have vanished into thin air without anyone around to notice. Many of the people I’ve met since coming to college don’t realize that my hair used to look different. Before Harvard, it was three times as thick ‘80s pop style hair. Today, what is invisible to most is to me a pronounced change. Dramatic hair loss and thinning was one of the first and clearest physical manifestations of a steep decline in my mental health during my freshman fall (driven by anxiety, panic, weight loss, and depression). To be frank, I have about one-third to one-half as much hair on my head as I did before. As I have grappled with my mental and physical health in the time since, my hair has begun to regrow — regaining a volume and shine that helps mask the destruction it suffered. Yet most days, when I look in the mirror, I still can’t help but note the prominence of my hairline and worry that the world around me will see as I try to hide parts of my scalp. Sometimes, I feel as if my hair holds every word I’ve never said, and every story I’ve never told, and it’s only a matter of time before I’m exposed. It feels like a kind of imposter syndrome.
As coronavirus has confined many of us to our homes, dramatically altering our everyday lives, I have realized that my hair holds a story that I wish I had shared with more people in my life while I could still see them in person. It’s a story that I want to share because it’s a story with which I think many of my peers might identify. And it’s a story that, above all, speaks to the silence around mental health that continues to pervade public discourse and particularly, our campus. As many of us are separated from critical mental health resources we had access to back on campus (even if those resources were insufficient) and living in confined spaces, we have to address now. Simply put, mental health can’t wait.
Oftentimes, the term “mental health” on campus becomes a mere question of regular self-care (healthy eating, sufficient sleeping, work-life balance, etc.), which obscures the reality of more distinct struggles that so many students at Harvard and college campuses nationwide face. The “keep calm and carry on” mentality that tends to dominate campus life can also keep us from recognizing when friends become more than the typical amount of overwhelmed with Harvard’s ‘never stop the grind’ culture. Students may write off signs of deeper mental health issues as mere occurrences of regular Harvard life, but doing so is extremely dangerous. As long as there remain stigmas around going to CAMHS, around seeing a therapist, around needing medication, and more, it is clear that people who really need help may not receive it when they need it — before they reach a breaking point.
No matter how well Harvard often masks it, there is a dark reality on our campus and on college campuses across the country when it comes to mental health. According to College Stats, over 40% of American college students report experiencing depression, which may contribute to suicide representing the third leading cause of death among college students. Nearly one-third reported having problems with school work as a result of a mental health issue, and one-half of those surveyed rated their mental health below average or poor.
I hate thinking of myself as a statistic, but at the same time, I like knowing these numbers because they remind me that I’m not alone — that none of us are alone. The cruel paradox of college is that it’s easy for us to feel alone mentally when we’re physically surrounded by people. It’s a very different kind of isolation than the one induced by the pandemic, but similar in its effects. This same feeling of loneliness tends to magnify as we find ourselves forced physically apart from one another. The stark reality of college students’ poor mental health does not disappear when we depart campus.
For many students, going home or living in isolation on campus to attend “Zoom University” can seriously exacerbate mental health conditions. Many students now lack the in-person access to mental health care they could previously receive. Virtual substitutes are not accessible to all, and when they are accessible, the quality of care they provide can vary immensely from what is offered by an in-person experience. Students who take medication for mental health conditions may struggle to maintain their supply for a myriad of reasons in addition to general limits on going outside, including if their prescriber is only licensed to provide them with medication in another state from that where they permanently reside. No phone-accessible CAMHS or virtual Room 13 can compensate for such dramatic losses.
Certainly, this is not an issue confined to Harvard’s walls, but is one that Harvard and all of our universities can and should take a more active role in addressing. Faculty members and the administration must be cognizant of the toll that this pandemic can take on students’ mental health and of the restricted access to mental health resources many students may face, recognizing that many students may not feel comfortable advocating for themselves when mental health gets in the way of their work. In addition to simply being flexible with deadlines and accommodating students’ schedules, the university must actively work with students to make mental health resources available in whatever forms possible. Harvard should be ensuring that students who need therapy and other treatment are receiving it (for now, that might mean virtually), as well as that students are able to access medication. It should also support online programming for students around mental health, translating related talks and events that would have happened on campus into online opportunities.
Mental health is an issue that all students should think about because we can’t control the way our minds and bodies work. In the coming months, any one of us, our friends, our roommates, or our peers may need this support any moment. The coronavirus pandemic is not creating a mental health crisis; it is only highlighting one that has long shadowed college campuses. And, as we navigate a socially distanced world, it’s demanding an even stronger response.
As I look forward to returning to campus in the fall, I am hopeful that we can return to a Harvard that gives proper consideration to the diverse needs, both mental and physical, of its student body. The university’s horrific incompetence and lack of consideration for its rapid eviction of students is symptomatic of an institutional problem: Harvard is not treating its students with the full humanity each one of us deserves. What it currently offers through CAMHS and peer mental health support services is helpful, but insufficient. Dialogue about mental health on campus cannot be a confined effort; it has to be a universal one. And part of that rests on how we interact with and care for one another. It means not making assumptions about what people are experiencing, being there for each other however we can be, and not shying away from tough discussions about our diverse realities.
At the end of the day, I feel like my hair was a small price to pay in my battle for self-control — one that is still ongoing. But it’s still hard not to lament sometimes. I know that even as it grows back, my hair will probably never look the same as it once did. Maybe I’m the only person who will ever notice or care. But that’s not the point.
Not all scars are visible and when it comes to mental health, they may manifest far below the skin. But that doesn’t mean that we, as a community, can dismiss them. And it doesn’t mean that we can hide from them either. Hiding only makes it harder to heal.
Image Source: Pexels/Bennie Lukas Bester