Harvard and the murder/suicide of 1995

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Discus: Parents Forum: 2004 Archive - Part 2: Harvard and the murder/suicide of 1995
By Mlee (Mlee) on Thursday, September 16, 2004 - 03:25 pm: Edit

I've just finished reading the book, Halfway Heaven, about the tragic murder of a Harvard student by her roommate who immediately thereafter committed suicide in their dormitory room. The author is a Harvard graduate (daughter of a Harvard professor) who also taught writing at Harvard prior to writing for the New Yorker. I find the book insightful, non-sensationalistic and well-intentioned.

The book describes a woefully inadequate mental health system at Harvard, an institutional arrogance in Harvard's attempt to "spin" this horrible murder/suicide for damage control, and dishonesty and intimidation on the part of several Harvard administrators in their handling of it.

I wonder if Harvard has substantially improved on their counseling and mental health care since then?

By Barrons (Barrons) on Thursday, September 16, 2004 - 08:05 pm: Edit

If they had taken action the people for the rights of the insane would have been all over them.

By Mlee (Mlee) on Thursday, September 16, 2004 - 09:34 pm: Edit

If the murderer had been seen more frequently than once a month, as she asked her counselor in a letter, by someone appropriately trained (she was seen by a part-time health service employee with an EdD), and been diagnosed and treated more intensively, possibly with medication for depression, then the murder and suicide might have been prevented.

By Barrons (Barrons) on Thursday, September 16, 2004 - 11:06 pm: Edit

Did she own a phone book?? there must be 10,000 shrinks in Boston and many take patients with limited funds. Personal responsibility.

By Mlee (Mlee) on Friday, September 17, 2004 - 12:07 am: Edit

So I see that the Harvard News Office published an announcement about changes in the mental health system following the recommendations of its Student Mental Health Task Force:

"The final report of the Student Mental Health Task Force made nine recommendations, the first four of which were presented in the interim report in February.

"Create a seamless system of mental health and counseling services for students. Both of the main portals into mental health care at the University - the Bureau of Study Counsel and University Health Services Mental Health Service - are now integrated and report to the new director of University Counseling, Academic Support, and Mental Health Services.

"Hire a new leader for expanded mental health services at the University. Barreira assumes the duties as director of University Counseling, Academic Support, and Mental Health Services July 1.

"Increase the number of mental health service providers. A preliminary survey of student intake at the Bureau was conducted and is now being analyzed. Further manpower assessment is planned.

"Ensure that all mental health facilities are student-friendly. Consultations are underway to explore bringing the bureau building up to the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) code for a mental health clinic. An assessment of more suitable space options for UHS, aimed at enhancing student privacy and confidentiality, is beginning.

"Improve availability of information and resources in the Freshman Yard and the residential houses.

"Enhance the support, supervision, and mentoring of student peer support groups.

"Improve mental health and academic support for graduate students.

"Improve mental health and academic support for international students.

"Appoint an advisory group on mental health."

Does anyone with Harvard connections have comments as to how this is working so far?

By Jamimom (Jamimom) on Friday, September 17, 2004 - 12:15 am: Edit

Many colleges are not well prepared to deal with emotional and mental issues. Harvard is not alone by a long shot. THere are suicides and murders at many colleges that just do not get the press.

I have always encouraged my kids to visit the mental health centers at their colleges so that they know the resources there before they get into too much trouble. But I certainly shudder at the though of being dependent on the college to provide help for any of my kids if they had a real problem. And none of my kids went to the same school as another.

It is really still the job of the parent to keep and eye and ear open if things are going poorly for their child at college particularly in health issues, both mental and physical. Two very sad cases I know, involve parents who really knew their kids were struggling mentally, and did not intervene, so hopeful were they that things would work out. In retrospect, it was pretty clear that something was severely wrong.

And the cases I have seen where the college dealt with the after mass of such tragedies, they were very poorly done. Simon's Rock, MIT, Johns Hopkins have all had terrible tragedies among the students, and they did not come out smelling like roses.

By Mlee (Mlee) on Friday, September 17, 2004 - 01:40 pm: Edit

Agreed, Jamimom, Harvard is not unique in this. I'm aware of the Shin tragedy at MIT, etc. Agree, too, that parents need to maintain vigilance - hard, I imagine, for parents of international students as was the case of the murderer/suicide.

I'm interested in the institutional differences in culture/community that may contribute to students having problems. (Also interested in how well these colleges are addressing the mental health needs of their students. Yale, for example is cited as having a better mental health system in place, partly because they have a clinical psychology program, and a Yale person was on Harvard's Student Mental Health Task Force.)

For example, a student wrote this in the Harvard Crimson:

"But in addressing mental health here, it would be careless not to ask as well: What about Harvard contributes to mental illness? Administrators often shy away from this approach—instead choosing to focus on the more palatable public-relations response that the sharp rise of mental illness at Harvard can be attributed to scientific improvements, which have allowed more mental illness sufferers to achieve admittance to Harvard than ever before. While certainly a factor, this trend does not explain why so many undergraduates encounter mental health problems for the very first time after reaching college.

"I offer my own analysis for the Task Force: The Harvard undergraduate community is, by and large, rather unwelcoming. First-year meals in Annenberg Hall are marked by cliques and social networking. Vertical entryways, as opposed to hallways, discourage even casual interactions among acquaintances. Even volunteer student organizations, steeped in traditions older than any of us, do their best to appear imposing and exclusive. Although some notable exceptions exist, Harvard’s social and extracurricular life is less than conducive to establishing a genuine support community. Indeed, social contacts at Harvard tend to be superficial and self-serving."

I'd really be interested in hearing what people like Northstarmom or Marite think about these issues. My kid is in excellent mental health, but I'd rather he avoid going to someplace that is lacking in community and has a poor safety net.

By Interesteddad (Interesteddad) on Friday, September 17, 2004 - 02:23 pm: Edit

>> The Harvard undergraduate community is, by and large, rather unwelcoming.

I think that's a fair assessement. Relative to the other elite private colleges and universities, Harvard would probably be at the low end of the "supportive undergrad community" scale.

According to my wife, it's not the students, most of whom are pretty normal, friendly college students. Although the percentage of kids falling outside that norm and pursuing their own agendas may be a tad high.

Rather, I think it's partly size: At 6500 undergrads, Harvard is one of the larger private universities.

It's partly geography: the campus is very decentralized without a lot of gathering places where community bonds can develop. As a rule, you'll probably find less sense of "community" at any major urban school, especially one that does not have a self-contained "oasis" campus.

It's partly university culture: Harvard is a huge commerical endeavor with interests, fiefdoms, and bureaucracies spreading in many directions. Just look at first change implemented by the "Mental Health Task Force", rearranging departmental reporting structures (can you say, "turf battles"?). The administration is not known for its focus on undergrad quality of life, although, in fairness, Dean Gross is very well liked. On top of that, Harvard feels little or no competitive pressure from the marketplace. They could house freshmen in underground caves and still get their 80% yield.

Contributing a bit may be that so many kids choose Harvard because "it's Harvard" and may not really know much about the school or have any real basis for an individual "good fit". It's probably not the right school for some students, which leads to its own set of mental tensions. After all, how can "Harvard" not be the right school? It must be me!

Freshmen are somewhat left to find their own community -- many find a comfortable "home" in one of the many clubs or activities. The vast majority do find their own community and enjoy four happy years in Cambridge.

By Alongfortheride (Alongfortheride) on Friday, September 17, 2004 - 02:35 pm: Edit

I have read posts concerning whether or not to tell a university during the admissions process whether or not a student had received treatment for depression and other diagnosed disorders. I haven't contributed any thoughts as I feel I am out of my element on this one. I have been very interested in the answers that were given by you CC posters that have personal experience. I am struck most by your candor and feel that it is a breath of fresh air. It's nothing to be ashamed of, but we often sweep it under the carpets as "family business" which perpetuates the cycle. Thank you, Jamimom and others for sharing from your experiences with friends and family.

I know that the colleges admit students every year that are depressed or have been diagnosed with other mental and learning situations. I don't think in my sons case that the question was ever asked during the registration process whether or not he was undergoing treatment for anything. I'm not sure with FERPA that the schools can even ask. Given that, I don't know how a school can head off every possible tragedy. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. Students can be offered resources, but it they won't go, or if they get off medication, what is the school to do? I agree with Jamimom, parental intervention would seem their best hope at that point.

By Marite (Marite) on Friday, September 17, 2004 - 02:52 pm: Edit

My S is not a Harvard student, so I cannot comment on how much support Harvard undergrads get (I was a graduate student, so my experience was quite different). I agree with a lot of what ID says. It is very possible that some students come to Harvard without really thinking whether this is the best place for them because "It's Harvard." I also think that Harvard's policy of looking for the unique student may yield a few misses along the hits. Just a speculation on my part.
I have met many Harvard students, and they have come in all types. Some students love the fact that Harvard is part of a wider world, that they can hop on the T and be involved in their community service or go to a concert or a play in Boston. For others, being part of a more cohesive and less open college community is more important. If this is not something they considered deeply before matriculating, it can come as a disappointment.
There is also a tendency to gripe about Harvard that does not seem to apply elsewhere. Somebody posted about the ratings given to Harvard and MIT on studentreviews.com. On surrounding city, Harvard was given a B or B-. MIT received an A-. Nobody is going to convince me that the MIT neighborhood is more pleasant than Harvard. So I wonder why Harvard students (however unrepresentative these were) gave their own neighborhood a lower ranking? Having said this, there are plenty of students at Harvard who are well-adjusted and very happy to be there.

By Interesteddad (Interesteddad) on Friday, September 17, 2004 - 02:57 pm: Edit

>> I don't think in my sons case that the question was ever asked during the registration process whether or not he was undergoing treatment for anything.

That would typically be asked on the health questionaire.

If I had a kid in that situation, I would probably arrange an informal communication with the head of mental health services with some background information and encourage my son or daughter to go meet 'n greet that person during orientation just to have some familiarity with the resources that are available.

Using those resources certainly involves no shame. The head of mental health services at my daughter's school told the parents on an orientation tour that they meet with 36% of the students at least once over the course of four years at the school and that they strongly encourage students to turn to them as a stress-relief mechanism. The vast majority of these encounters involve nothing more than lending a ear during a rough patch, but it gives the staff an opportunity to (hopefully) catch more serious issues.

By Jamimom (Jamimom) on Friday, September 17, 2004 - 05:11 pm: Edit

If you have a child who is already showing signs of emotional, mental, issues even before going to college, you should not only get heavy counseling for the child the summer before he goes away and start the transition to a therapist in the university area. Because mental illnesses start to show the symptoms at about age 18, going away to college is prime time for these problems to occur. Most of the time they can be resolved. With less stress and agony if you get some help and have an infrastructure available.

Both my niece and nephew had issues due the turbulence of their essential years and desertion by their parents and we were on alert for that. S1 had unresolved maturity issues (still does) and some depression problems. D ended up dating a boy with mental problems that ended up on her plate as his behaviour degenerated. I have fought depression for over 30 years, and it cost me a semester in college before I learned to wrestle that demon down. Something I have to live with for the rest of my life, I guess, but now I can deal with it.

Even kids who do not have any underlying mental health issues can hit a rough patch when things don't go right. A good attitude about emotional turbulence and some pointers on who to see, where to go can keep the every day issues from interfering with everyday life.

I am a big proponent in learning to deal with issues and not numb the pain too much or sweep the whole thing under the rug. There are times that it is appropriate to be outraged, sad, angry, alone, etc. It's learning to deal with the emotion, with that feeling that is important. I try to talk about this with my kids. If you fail a test, it's not just all right. You should feel terrible. But how to get through it? What helps you? Does it help or exhaserbate the situation? What channels help YOU deal with bad feelings and situation? Let's find a good channel for such situations. What not to do.

Suicide is something that some kids take too casually. I have seen many sympathy seeking attempts. It should be very clear what happens to a person who talks, threatens, attempts suicide, and if the person truly has thoughts about it, this is something worth taking time off to discuss and work out.

Many of us struggle with our feelings and getting help to resolve difficulties is not only important when problems occur, it is important to know the resources available before they occur.

By Mlee (Mlee) on Saturday, September 18, 2004 - 03:30 am: Edit

I appreciate the comments that everyone has added. Wouldn't it be nice to see "supportive undergrad community" on a USNWR rating scale? I think colleges have a responsibility to try to create safe environments for their students. This would include keeping a lookout for depression, a common condition, which by its very nature may make the sufferer incapable of seeking appropriate help alone, and having accessible counseling resources available. I like the suggestion of Jamimom of making the counseling services well known to a student in advance of any need - here's the laundry, the bank, the library, the bookstore, the pizza joint, the gym, the counselors.

By Marite (Marite) on Saturday, September 18, 2004 - 06:31 am: Edit


Colleges DO tell students about mental health resources, counseling services such as writing centers, bureaux of study skills, etc... as part of orientation. Such information is also easily available in any student handbook.
As for depression, it is very difficult to detect if someone is determined to hide it.
If there is the least hint that a student is already suffering from depression, it is better not to apply to schools that are pressure cookers and that, by their very urban nature and fairly large size, cannot provide the kind of nurturing environment that you think colleges should provide. The young woman who committed suicide at MIT clearly had had issues prior to attending MIT; and while MIT seems to have neglected to pick up on signs that she was at risk, I also have to wonder about the wisdom of her parents' decision to let her attend MIT when she was already rather fragile.

By Mlee (Mlee) on Saturday, September 18, 2004 - 03:43 pm: Edit

A relevant Newsweek article - hope this link doesn't violate CC's policy:


By Robyrm (Robyrm) on Saturday, September 18, 2004 - 06:52 pm: Edit

I completely agree with you regarding the MIT student. Her parents, like many I would guess, failed to see "the whole child" and possibly related to cultural factors, had a different understanding in general of when "stress" becomes unhealthful. Everything I read about the situation suggests MIT was very transparent about this. Charles Vest, the MIT president who is about to retire, seems to have taken this issue on as a mission- he impresses as a person of highest integrity and he has not backed down from this. Most information about events like this gets reported in the first few days, but the MIT story had legs- with the article in the NYTimes Sunday mag, for example. I think it important to know that the school hasn't let the issue drop once it is out of the public eye.

I am interested in what other parents have received directly (not through their students) about mental health services available. My son's college sent out a brochure mailed to parents outlining the procedures and personnel related to mental health services, and urging parents to make sure the student is aware of these issues (it was a signficant topic during orientation as well according to my son's schedule). I thought it a proactive approach and was astonished by the depth of services available in a small town.

By Interesteddad (Interesteddad) on Saturday, September 18, 2004 - 08:52 pm: Edit

>> I am interested in what other parents have received directly (not through their students) about mental health services available.

We received a Parents' Handbook detailing every support function of the college with contact information.

More interesting was the parents' orientation tour. Originally added to the drop-off day agenda to get parents out of their kids rooms, I found it to be worthwhile. Instead of touring academic sites, an assistant dean walked us around campus, stopping at each major support facility for some remarks from the appropriate person. For example, we visited the security office and heard from the head of security. The head of the alumni office told us about student-alumni contacts. The academic deans office told us about the student mentoring and writing associate programs. The career counseling office told us about that.

The most interesting stop was a visit to the campus health center where we heard from the nurse practitioner head of health services -- an honest overview covering everything from illness to birth control to alcohol treatment. Then, we heard from the head of mental health services, again an honest overview covering the range from routine stress management counseling to serious mental illness intervention.

I particularly liked comments made while reviewing the fact that Pennsylvania state law prohibits them from releasing information about 18+ year olds without the student's permission. However, they said that they use their judgement and will often pick up the phone, dial the number, and ask the student, "don't you think it would be a good idea to talk to your parents?"

They didn't duck any hard questions. My wife asked about the last suicide on campus. The psychologist gave the date (1995) and volunteered that he had been involved in two more serious interventions since then. I think the campus culture and certain structural policies (like housing) tend to catch kids that are having trouble.

I had a very good feeling about the health facility and staff, actually a good feeling about all of the support systems on campus -- starting with the Dean of the College who had spent the summer reading freshmen application essays and correctly identified two of my daughter's essays when my wife introduced herself.

By Robyrm (Robyrm) on Saturday, September 18, 2004 - 09:39 pm: Edit

The tour sounds unusually thoughtful...in general. I wonder if I missed something similar thinking it was "just the same" as the tour we had had months earlier. The whole "in loco parentis" issue seems to be such a big deal these days..somehow I never thought about it when I was 18!

One huge issue, of course, is that mental health services for children and teens are woefully inadequate in general. This behooves colleges to do more- and to be proactive, since there are certainly kids being admitted with unidentified and untreated diagnoses.

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