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Study calls for MIT to improve mental care
By Patrick Healy, Globe Staff, 7/4/2001
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology should make ''significant
changes'' to its mental-health services and begin screening students for
depression and suicidal tendencies, according to a high-level draft
Since early 1998, six MIT students have killed themselves, and over the
past decade the university had a suicide rate that a Globe study found to
be higher than at many other elite campuses. MIT has come under intense
pressure from families and classmates to evaluate how it treats students'
The new report, commissioned last year after MIT sophomore Elizabeth Shin
died by setting herself on fire, was written by a 20-member task force of
MIT psychiatrists, staff members, and students, and was provided to the
Globe in its final stages.
The draft includes damning evidence of holes in MIT's mental-health
safety net, which some parents and students say is not nearly strong
enough to help deal with the academic and personal pressures that many
students feel at the elite, 10,000-student school.
Among the task force's findings:
Three-quarters of MIT students surveyed reported having an emotional
problem that interfered with their daily functioning, but only 28 percent
turned to the MIT Mental Health Service.
Of students who did seek help, one-third had to wait 10 days or more to
see an MIT counselor.
MIT ranked 7th of nine top universities it surveyed in the number of
full-time mental health clinicians per student. MIT was also the only one
that did not offer regular evening office hours. MIT has not expanded its
counseling staff since 1995, even though its student caseload increased
by 61 percent.
The report makes a number of concrete recommendations to ensure that
students in crisis are noticed sooner - and receive timely care.
To keep students from having to wait more than a week for an appointment,
it suggests, MIT should add between six and 10 full-time clinicians to
its Mental Health Service, which now has a staff of 18 psychiatrists,
psychologists, and psychiatric social workers, and should significantly
expand evening hours.
The draft also urges MIT to train professors, dormitory staff, and tutors
to watch for warning signs and recognize students who might have
It suggests the university hire a dean to oversee ''a large-scale mental
health campaign on campus,'' as well as an orientation session for
freshmen on mental health and a new program to detect depression in
students and prevent suicide.
Counseling centers at MIT and universities nationwide are seeing far more
students today, specialists say. Many of them are depressed, bipolar, or
have eating disorders, yet are academically successful because they are
medicated or have received therapy from an early age.
''At universities like MIT, you have high-performing students who for
years have done well, but when they get to MIT, they face the added
responsibilites of a tough academic environment and a personal
adjustment,'' said Perry C. Francis, the outgoing president of the
American College Counseling Association.
At the same time, Francis said, schools are cutting or privatizing mental
health services - viewing severe emotional problems as too complex for
them to solve through in-house therapy, and worried about legal liability
''Universities see these types of services as a money drain - the cash is
going out, not coming in,'' he said. ''What many administrators don't see
is that the more services you provide, the greater the chance students
will stay in the university.''
At MIT, the administration has been prodded by students to help them cope
with academic demands and personal frustrations. Undergraduates,
especially, say their classmates are increasingly struggling with
depression and contemplating suicide.
''Our recommendations are addressing a lot of the student concerns about
what needs to change on campus,'' said Rupa Hattangadi, a student on the
Leaders of the Mental Health Task Force could not be reached for comment
yesterday, but other members said the draft recommendations would remain
intact in the final version. MIT Chancellor Phillip L. Clay, who will
decide whether to carry out the proposals, did not return phone messages
Despite requests from some MIT students, the task force did not
investigate whether bedrocks of MIT's culture - high expectations of
professors, a competitive academic environment, a spirit of independence
in lab work, and a relatively uncohesive dormitory system - had a
particularly distressing effect on students.
One recommendation does urge customizing a depression screening and
suicide prevention program for MIT students, in part by making it
available online. The proposed mental health awareness campaign would
also seek to ''change the campus culture so that students feel
comfortable seeking help.''
Eric Plosky, an MIT graduate who witnessed a suicide on campus in 1998
and first proposed creating the task force, said yesterday he was
disappointed the panel did not look into factors on campus that might
lead to suicide.
He also expressed concern about the fate of the report, since it was
commissioned not by Chancellor Clay but by his predecessor.
''MIT needs to actually talk about what they can do with these ideas, and
do it,'' said Plosky, who declined to comment on the recommendations
until they were finalized.
An MIT spokesman said officials would not comment until the task force
delivers the finished report, which is expected this summer.
Patrick Healy can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/4/2001. © Copyright
2001 Globe Newspaper Company.
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