Unlearning Toxic Self-Reliance and Embracing Accommodation

Having college students regularly sacrifice their basic nutrition and mental health needs, undergo chronic stress and sleep deprivation, and debate whether or not to attend class while sick during a pandemic should not be as pervasive as it is now. These problems stem from the idea that the individual is entirely responsible for their mental health and wellbeing, which limits help-seeking behaviors, especially amongst youth, perpetuating depression, anxiety, ADHD, suicide, and a host of other issues.

This ideology of toxic self-reliance is especially pervasive at universities like Harvard. It creates a culture that relies on a fixed privileged view that assumes all people should be like the (white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, male) default who are (supposedly) entirely self-reliant. Yet, mental health should never be an individual battle. Harvard’s expectation of excellence currently relies on a deeply rooted ableism, both mental and physical, creating a campus that is not built for people who have different capabilities, implying that differences are deficits.

Therefore, even though many students at Harvard rely upon accommodations such as extended time testing and mental health services, this is rarely discussed because of the stigma surrounding neurodivergence and mental health problems. They are often perceived as weaknesses, personal failings, or a lack of willpower.

At Harvard, access to mental health services is limited and inadequate, and students are often expected to seek outside therapy or an expert to get a mental health diagnosis, which many cannot afford. I avoided seeking help from Harvard’s Counseling and Mental Health Services for some time because I’d heard that there are limits on the number of therapy sessions provided by CAMHS before students are encouraged to find an outside provider.

The problem is not that we students are not ready for the harsh deadlines of college or the real world, it is that these harsh deadlines are often blind to students’ specific needs. The purpose of education should be to invest in all people so that they can reach their individual potential and contribute to society, which requires a far more personalized approach than a one-size-fits-all model.


This lack of accommodation is especially harmful to neurodivergent, disabled, queer, poor, and/or BIPOC students. The more intersections of oppression that a student sits at the center of, the worse this issue becomes as they face increasing levels of harassment, setbacks, and traumas while often having them be invalidated by the institution. White supremacy centers the needs and comfort of white people while erasing those of people of color. Patriarchy teaches that any expression of vulnerability or dependence on others is feminine and weak.

These systems of oppression work together to promote the idea that the needs of marginalized people are burdens and threats to the collective. Marginalized people are dehumanized and taught to believe their emotional and psychological needs do not matter and thus that they do not matter. They — we — are taught to hate themselves for their weaknesses and any differences in the way they present themselves from the norm, leading to a culture of toxic performativity that prevents anyone from flourishing as their true authentic self.

A true vision of Harvard excellence demands that we accommodate all people by celebrating rather than stigmatizing neurodiversity and actively creating space for differences. We must learn to build a culture that starts by seeing all people as valuable and worthy of being accommodated, no matter what their needs are.

Having special needs is not a personal failing, but a natural part of being a unique human being. To transform our schools from the epicenters of anxiety and depression that they are quickly becoming into the incredible places of learning and growth they should be, there must be communal investment into student’s mental health, emotional growth, and financial support for many students to develop so that they are prepared. We must devote enough resources t0 our education system to support deep personalization of learning for all students.

We are all fundamentally worthy of having our needs accommodated. This view must overthrow our current toxic individualism, and underpin our education at Harvard.

​​David E. Lewis ’24 lives in Quincy House. His column “Unlearning Everything” appears on alternate Thursdays.

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