Harvard’s Mental Health System Dehumanized | Opinion

If you or someone you know needs help at Harvard, please contact Counseling and Mental Health Services at (617) 495-2042 or the Harvard University Police Department at (617) 495-1212. Several peer counseling groups offer confidential peer conversations. Read more here.

You can contact a university chaplain to speak one-on-one at [email protected] or here.

You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 988 or text the Crisis Text Line on 741741.

Last Thursday, a jury found Harvard Counseling and Mental Health Services employee Melanie G. Northrop not guilty in a case involving the suicide of Luke Z. Tang ’18. I am not a member of Tang’s family, nor have I ever known him. I am neither a lawyer nor a psychiatrist. I cannot claim to determine whether the acquittal of Northrop, Tang’s case manager, was justified.

Instead, I urge us to seize this moment to reflect on how Harvard’s mental health system has failed—and continues to fail—its students. In turn, we must demand reforms to reduce the likelihood that such a tragedy will ever happen again.

Central to Harvard’s mental health system is an ethos of mistrust, paternalism, and surveillance. This ethos is illustrated by the case of Tang.

Tang attempted suicide on April 11, 2015, while he was a freshman. His attempt was followed by a seven-day hospitalization at McLean Hospital – a teaching hospital affiliated with Harvard Medical School. Several weeks later, a contract was signed between Harvard and Tang, with Tang’s signature a condition of his return to campus.

This contract required Tang to comply with his treatment providers’ recommendations (including prescribed medications), prohibited him from changing this medication regimen without permission, mandated him to submit to a psychiatric evaluation at the request of a “college official,” and allowed college to contact his parents if terms of the contract were violated. Failure to comply would threaten Tang’s continued enrollment at Harvard.

Tang attempted to change these terms before signing. He was refused.

He died by suicide on September 12, 2015.

There is a simple explanation why Harvard’s “concern” focuses on contractual obligations. It appears that students who are considered an immediate threat to themselves are a legal and public relations liability in the eyes of our government. Harvard does not want to be the school known for student suicides, nor does it want to spend its (more than $50 billion) endowment on lawsuits and settlements.

While the university’s financial and reputational motives are understandable, these motives should not influence its approach to mental health care – not at the expense of the well-being of its students. Unfortunately, it is possible that the terms of Tang’s contract and the context surrounding its signing had a negative effect on his health.

The fact that his contract was non-negotiable negated Tang’s personhood and denied him autonomy over his care. The only choice he had was to agree or unsubscribe.

The terms of the contract were also stifling.

Encouraging treatment is one thing; making it mandatory under threat of expulsion is another. The terms of the contract suggest a deep mistrust of students struggling with mental health issues. This approach sends a clear message: Harvard doesn’t trust you.

Preventing students from changing their medication regimen without permission from their treatment team is a clear violation of bodily autonomy. Reactions to psychiatric medications are varied and can range from dangerous side effects to unwanted mood swings that can be justified as a “necessary evil” by the wrong healthcare provider. Harvard’s scheme amounts to the forcible administration of drugs to students.

By expanding the scope of who could demand a psychiatric evaluation of Tang to include the highly ambiguous category of “college officials,” Harvard unfairly subjected a student to excessive scrutiny and observation. When a College official has this power, there are few safe authorities you can turn to without risking expulsion from the College. Speaking about your experiences becomes dangerous.

By reserving the right to contact students’ parents about their mental health, the administration exceeded its authority and interfered in family matters. Such outreach can be especially insidious for students with unsupportive parents, or worse—as is the case for many gay students with unaccepting families—it can be a blatant violation of student privacy. We may be young, but we are still adults and we have the right to decide who is involved in our care.

When Harvard treats students as liabilities, it sends a clear message to those who need care: there may not be a place for you here.

Harvard’s current system reinforces the stigma surrounding mental health; it needs to be redesigned to actively combat this stigma. If the university truly cares about mental health, it must begin to view its students as full persons – persons with dignity, persons capable of reasoning and making decisions, and persons entitled to bodily autonomy.

Resistance to change makes Harvard complicit in the current mental health crisis.

Allison P. Farrell ’26, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a philosophy concentrator at Leverett House.