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You Cannot Help Us If You’re Looking Past Us

This past Tuesday, as I waited for my second appointment with a social worker in Counseling and Mental Health Services at Harvard, I couldn’t help but laugh at how much I wanted to talk to someone. When the familiar face of the woman I’d spoken with before came out of her office to get me, I perked up. But her eyes settled on the other black girl in the waiting room as she asked that girl to come on in. I was her patient, and yet this licensed social worker at Harvard University Health Services couldn’t tell the difference between me and a girl she may have never met. It was unacceptable.

My road to Counseling and Mental Health Services, or CAMHS, had been a long one. I had needed help for a while. That much was certain.

When I did finally make an appointment for myself, on the morning of April 11, I did so because I was having a panic attack. I couldn’t breathe, my heart was beating too quickly. I was pacing back and forth, telling myself out loud that I looked strange, that I was acting stupid, and that I couldn’t step foot outside looking the way I did, or feeling the way I did. Every time tears threatened to spill from my eyes, I shut them tight, telling myself that I couldn’t give in, I couldn’t be weak. Obviously, I needed help. So, I signed into my Harvard University Health Services account, and I made an appointment for the next day. It was comforting. Even if nothing else changed, at least I would be able to talk to someone.

And that’s how I got myself through April 11. Before every class, before every meeting, I took a deep breath and said: If nothing else changes, at least I’ll be able to talk to someone. If nothing else changes, at least one person on this campus will understand how I feel. The day went by, and although I still had trouble breathing, although my heart was still beating too quickly, although I still couldn’t quite feel happy with who I was, I made it through.

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The next day rolled around, and eventually, so did my appointment in CAMHS. There were so many things that I had been carrying around with me that I hadn’t told anyone about. I had suffered from severe depression and anxiety for four years. I had hurt myself before and I was ashamed of it. This past year, a very close family member was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I hadn’t even told my closest friends at Harvard about the diagnosis. I didn’t want them to pity me. For whatever reason, despite my accomplishments and my successes, I could not feel proud of myself. I didn’t like myself at all. I walked into my CAMHS appointment with all of that resting on my shoulders.

I told all of this to the licensed social worker that I spoke with. She asked a lot of questions, she gave me a lot of compliments, she said she never would’ve guessed that I had depression. She tried her best to offer me advice, but my issues were too complex to be solved in one meeting. Still, when I left, I felt better. I had talked about myself freely, without fear of being judged.

Heading into the weekend of Yardfest, Harvard’s annual spring concert, there was a lot to look forward to. I still felt anxious, but I was excited too. Yardfest came and I danced and sang and partied with my friends, just as much of campus was doing. And then the next morning, April 14, I woke up to the news that a black undergraduate had been beaten by an officer in the Cambridge Police Department after a call from HUHS ultimately ended up routed to CPD.

I felt defeated. I am black. I have a mental illness. What I want, more than anything, is to know that this campus and its health institutions are dedicated to my health and my safety. But how can that be the case when HUHS decides to call the police on a black student rather than offering him the medical support to which he is entitled? How can that be the case when the color of one’s skin seemingly invalidates the legitimacy of one’s illness? I cannot speak to the details of what happened between CPD officers and the student who suffered at their hands. I can speak to what the encounter reveals about our health services system.

On Tuesday, April 17, I met with the same licensed social worker for a follow up. I knocked on the door to her office. She opened it, and asked me to wait in the waiting room for just a moment. So, I walked into the waiting room, and took a seat near a young black woman. The social worker came out, and looked at that black woman sitting in front of me. “I’m ready for you now,” she said. The social worker, who had spent an hour talking to me just days before, and who had looked me in the eyes just moments ago, was now addressing another black girl, thinking she was me. After an awkward silence, the social worker looked around, saw me, smiled, and ushered me into her office without a word of apology.

If a woman to whom I told my most private thoughts, whom I cried in front of, cannot identify me when I’m sitting right in front of her, I don’t know how to expect her to actually be equipped to support me. If the mental health care providers at Harvard University cannot distinguish one black girl from the next, can’t even be bothered to remember who we are from one moment to another, I don’t know how to expect them to care enough to offer us help instead of taking us into custody.

Health care requires empathy and understanding. Racism and bias undermine empathy and understanding, and they keep black students from receiving effective care. They deprive us of what we are entitled to as students. There is a lack of empathy and understanding at HUHS. It has everything to do with racism. It has everything to do with the police incident that occurred on Friday night.

I still need help. But sadly, I do not trust HUHS to offer me that help. I do not know what I am going to do.

Maya M. Jenkins ’21 lives in Apley Court.

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