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Treating Depression

Guest Column Julia C. Lipman

In 1992, the father of an MIT student who committed suicide wrote a letter to The Tech to correct the initial report that his son's death had been an accident. "My real concern at this time is how casually MIT seems to accept suicide," he wrote. His comments could simply be dismissed as the irrational anger of a grief-stricken father, except that it is only too clear that MIT does indeed have a casual attitude toward student suicide.

Seven years later, nothing has changed. A student suicide still commands little lasting attention and no action. There will be no restructuring of the residential system and no administrative committees appointed as a result of the suicide of Michael P. Manley '02. Instead, it will be business as usual.

Compare that to the response to student death from alcohol poisoning: a serious, concerted effort on MIT's part to prevent such deaths in the future. Whether or not you agree with the methods used, it's indisputable that MIT is taking the problem seriously. Of course, student suicide isn't going to bring about lawsuits or national media coverage. But if MIT can be said to have a "binge drinking" problem with a rate about half that of the average school, it's about time to admit that MIT has a suicide problem.

People like simple, punitive solutions to problems, especially problems involving young people. Is there an outbreak of juvenile crime? Try them as adults. Teenage car accidents? Place tough restrictions on teen drivers (as Massachusetts has done recently). College drinking? Crack down on campus parties. But MIT can't ban depression or crack down on suicide.

Oh, it can try. But by now, it should be clear that modifying high windows should not be the main approach to solving this campus-wide problem. Unfortunately, the issue of window safety has gotten the most attention so far, as it did in 1996 when another MacGregor resident committed suicide by falling from a 14th-story window. After that suicide, a group of administrators, housing officials, and students was created to explore different possibilities for safer windows. Not only does such an approach miss the point completely, but by concentrating on the most minor, technical details, we have effectively distanced ourselves from the uncomfortable reality of suicide on this campus.

There's probably never going to be a Newsweek article or 20/20 piece suggesting that MIT causes its students to commit suicide through academic pressure. And in many ways, that's for the best. Such a simplistic explanation of why people take their own lives would be hardly more illuminating than the present discussion of window mechanics. But, as we've seen, media coverage can force immediate action. Of course MIT has counseling deans, Nightline, and the Mental Health Service at MIT Medical to help students suffering from depression. But what is missing is a comprehensive plan to keep students from taking their own lives. Where is the task force on suicide prevention? There is a great deal more that could be done.

Something as simple as giving counseling services more publicity could make quite a difference. Nightline places posters around campus, but I've never seen any advertising for psychiatric services at the Med Center. If you doubt that such a simple approach would have much of an effect, just look at the success of recent campaigns aimed at drunk driving and unprotected sex.

MIT has always been the kind of place where to do something by oneself is the highest form of accomplishment; only recently did most MIT classes even encourage collaboration on problem sets. But depression isn't a problem set; it isn't something that can be conquered without collaboration. MIT's responsibility to its students extends beyond providing them with safe windows. Now is the time to act. By making a decision to do something now about suicide on campus, MIT can prevent future tragedies as well as set an example for other universities. MIT now has the opportunity to give real meaning to the Med Center's slogan: "At MIT, we do things a little differently."

Julia C. Lipman is a senior in the Department of Mathematics.