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Six suicides, confirmed, since '98. I know of three in that period, here
at Harvard, and, I am not privy to anything other than the local news.
There may be more, there may be some unconfirmed and unreported. And I
wonder at claims of suicides (the Werther effect) increasing with media
coverage, since statistics are just that. Might there also be a 'report
werther effect' on the part of media outlets? Is there not a clamor after
a suicide to open records and to uncover attempts to hide? Is not focus,
in and of itself, a statistical bump?
MIT student's death ruled suicide
Sophomore was 6th to take own life at school since 1998
By Patrick Healy, Globe Staff, 6/26/2001
CAMBRIDGE - The state medical examiner has ruled that the April 30 death
of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology sophomore was a suicide,
making her the sixth confirmed student suicide at MIT since early 1998.
According to a death certificate filed yesterday with the Cambridge city
clerk, Julie M. Carpenter, 20, died of acute cyanide poisoning almost
immediately after ingestion.
Carpenter, who was studying chemistry, was found dead in her bedroom in
MIT's Random Hall several hours after she had attended a birthday party
in the dorm. There was no evidence of foul play or a suicide note. Random
Hall was the site of another student suicide, in April 2000, when
sophomore Elizabeth Shin set herself on fire.
The cause of Carpenter's death has been a matter of intense interest on
the MIT campus. Some students and alumni believe the school has not done
enough to prevent student suicides.
After Shin took her life last year, the school appointed a task force of
staff and students to recommend ways to expand and publicize MIT mental
Kristine Girard, a psychiatrist on MIT's counseling staff and cochair of
the task force, said yesterday that her panel's report was close to being
finished. She declined to comment on its contents. Ken Campbell, an MIT
spokesman, said the panel's work was expected to be completed this summer.
A Globe report in February on suicide at elite, science-oriented
institutions found that students at MIT have been far more likely to kill
themselves since 1990 than at the other 11 schools surveyed, which
included Harvard, Cornell, and Johns Hopkins universities.
Undergraduates at MIT also appeared more likely to kill themselves, on
average, than college students age 17 to 22 nationwide. MIT officials
strongly dispute that statistic, saying that the school's student suicide
rate is below the national average when race and gender are factored in
and when both undergraduates and graduate students are included.
In April, the school announced a significant expansion in psychotherapy
benefits for students who have MIT health insurance. In recent years, the
school paid $35 a session for a maximum of 50 private therapy
appointments a year. Beginning this September, MIT will pay all costs for
as many private sessions as students choose to have.
The six confirmed suicides since 1998, as well as the death of an MIT
alumnus in 2000 who jumped from a fraternity house roof, prompted the
student newspaper to warn about a culture of suicide at the institute.
David Shaffer, a Columbia University professor and president of American
Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said yesterday that colleges should
screen students for depression and anxiety within a few months after they
arrive on campus. He noted that mental illness is associated with about
90 percent of suicides.
Shaffer said he knew of no research that conditions specific to colleges
- such as academic pressure - lead to suicide, as some people assume.
''In general, pressure leads to better performance and a more stable
environment,'' he said. ''However, if you're dealing with someone who has
considerable performance anxiety or who may be depressed, they may
perceive academic demands in a different way.''
MIT would not say if Carpenter was seeking treatment from the school or
Friends yesterday remembered Carpenter as an outgoing young women with
plans for the future. Nina Davis Millis, a housemaster in Random Hall,
said she was working on ways to help residents cope with the loss.
''We have lost two students here,'' she said, referring to Carpenter and
Shin. ''I'm very, very concerned about the young people in this building.
It's a fragile and distressing loss.''
Patrick Healy can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story ran on page B3 of the Boston Globe on 6/26/2001. © Copyright
2001 Globe Newspaper Company.
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