12/19/2013 01:46 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2014

You Don't Have to be Strong: Mental Health on College Campuses

The fire alarm sounded just as the professor was about to pass out the exams.

When Harvard evacuated four buildings on Monday in response to unconfirmed reports of shrapnel bombs, my math class was one of the exam sites disbanded. As we evacuated from our final, however, I noted that none of the other students seemed seriously alarmed or concerned for their safety. Students joked, "The alarm sounded at exactly 9:00 am. It was probably some student who just didn't want to take their final." Their half-humorous suspicions were soon confirmed.

Following reports that Eldo Kim '16 was responsible for the Harvard bomb hoax on Monday in order to cancel his Gov 1368: Politics of American Education exam, the Internet exploded with reactions ranging from horror to amusement. Yet I kept thinking about how unsurprised my classmates seemed. Their uncanny guess seemed to indicate an almost universal understanding of Kim's motivations and behavior.

Perhaps we've all pretended to be strong for too long.

Finals week is a stressful time period at any school, but there's no question that the atmosphere at Harvard is doubly charged with expectations. Despite Crimson reports that a disproportionate number of students are admitted each year from so-called feeder schools, the vast majority of us hail from around the country, from Philadelphia to Montana. In our hometowns, we're portrayed as "That Kid Who Went to Harvard." At school, we're just another student in a large lecture hall, struggling through our Economics class. But at home, we're viewed as success stories, as if the name of Harvard alone guarantees fame and fortune. Just the name of Harvard confers a set of stereotypes and an undue proportion of media attention to any reports of grade inflation, whether or not it's been the status quo for twenty years.

The amount of attention paid to Harvard students may confer world-class faculty and unmatched resources, but it brings with it the pressure of maintaining a façade of strength.

Strength is portrayed as the norm in college culture, and especially so at Harvard. Strength entails balancing as many competing responsibilities as possible, hyped up on caffeine if needed, and sacrificing whatever it takes to get the job done. Strength is not portrayed as admitting that you're not ready for that exam, that you need an extension on that paper, that you need to talk to a therapist or trusted adult because you just can't handle it anymore.

While mental health resources are available to students and emphasized at the beginning of freshman fall, they're quickly abandoned to the backburner as the semesters proceed. In an environment in which students almost competitively lament the mountain of papers and tests they're preparing, it can be difficult to reveal actual mental health problems to your peers without seeming "weak." So despite the availability of mental health resources on campus, students appear reluctant to reach out for help either from their peers or from professionals.

Stress and mental health issues are not problems exclusive to Harvard students. Mental health problems exist on college campuses as a whole: In fact, the American College Health Association's National College Health Assessment likewise finds that 60.5 percent of students "felt very sad", and 30.3 percent say they "felt so depressed that it was difficult to function" at least once in the prior 12 months.

Which is why the change must come from how, as a culture and especially on college campuses, we view weakness, especially of mental health. When someone asks, "How are you doing?", is your automatic response, "I'm okay"? Perhaps if Kim had felt free to admit his weakness, his unpreparedness, and the fact that he wasn't as on top of his life as he would've liked to be, he would not have felt the need to resort to committing federal felony to avoid an exam. This culture of strength might be exacerbated by societal expectations of Harvard students, but it's certainly not unique to Harvard.

When we establish weakness and vulnerability as taboo subjects, we dam up any recourse for students suffering from mental health problems. The resources might be there, but if it's socially unacceptable to reach for them, they might as well not exist.

Why were my classmates not fearful in the face of an unconfirmed bomb threat? Why did so many accurately assume a panicked student as the culprit? Perhaps because somewhere subconsciously, we could all empathize with Kim's feeling of helplessness beneath a façade of strength.

Only by building a culture of empathy, compassion, and vulnerability at Harvard and beyond, can we even begin to chip away pervasive mental health problems on college campuses around the country. Only by relaxing the mandatory façade of strength can we allow those in need to feel comfortable admitting weakness. Only when we can admit weakness can we create a safe, welcoming environment for students to learn.

And it starts with each one of us, dismantling our pretenses of strength. The willingness to let down your guard and say, "I'm not okay," begins with you.