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Addressing the Suicide Problem

Eric J. Plosky

Depending on circumstances, controversy or lack thereof can be desirable. Response to controversial situations is always strategic, for controversy, properly controlled and manipulated, can lead to media coverage and public perception that ultimately benefits an individual's or a group's public image. Conversely, issues are often spun as non-controversial when it appears that drawing attention to them would yield no public-image benefit.

As a tragically illustrative pair of examples, take the Institute's responses to the deaths of Scott S. Krueger '01 and Michael P. Manley '02. No one would dispute the controversial nature of Krueger's death; the MIT community has been schizophrenically up in arms ever since and repercussions have radiated nationwide. Campus life has changed dramatically and the entire undergraduate residential system will soon bear no resemblance to its former, pre-Krueger self.

Yet the suicide of Manley, no less tragic, is not labeled "controversial." As Julia C. Lipman '99 wrote in this space on Friday with bitter accuracy, "There will be no restructuring of the residential system and no administrative committees appointed as a result of [Manley's suicide]. Instead, it will be business as usual." ["Treating Depression," Feb. 12]

Why? Is it because there will be no media coverage of Manley's death, nothing comparable to the press frenzy that has surrounded the Krueger issue? Partly. Lipman notes that "media coverage can force immediate action," as in the Krueger case; contrariwise, a lack of coverage removes much of the urgency that would provoke an immediate response.

Will it be business as usual because there is no easy response to suicide, nothing MIT can really do to address the situation? No; Lipman points out a variety of reasonable tactics, including publicizing counseling services and establishing a task force on suicide prevention. The question really then becomes, "Why won't the administration which has hurried through wholesale reforms in response to an alcohol-related death do anything in response to suicide?" Bryan E. Weir '99 asked this plaintive question several times in a letter on Friday, suggesting administrative confusion as a possible answer. ["Alcohol vs. Suicide," Feb. 12]

The answer is not that the administration doesn't know what to do. It is not that nothing can be done; it is not merely the lack of media scrutiny. The administration won't respond to suicide, won't respond to Manley in the same way as to Krueger, mostly because any measures taken will have no immediate external benefit. It is not in the administration's best interest to stir up controversy by drawing attention to a suicide-prevention campaign or to a new task force on student depression. This is in contrast to the Krueger incident, in which the administration's quick responses were portrayed positively by the media. The often hasty measures taken by administrators were justified, it seemed to the media, because the situation was so controversial and action was needed immediately. That action was taken immediately made MIT worthy of praise in spite of the tragic circumstances.

Of course there will be internal benefits, and overall societal benefits, to directly and effectively address the problem of suicide. Preventing suicide is an unquestionably worthwhile goal that is, prevention in the sense of eliminating suicidal depression, not in the sense of physically attempting to prevent suicide by blocking windows. However, in order to implement any of Lipman's common-sense tactics, as Lipman herself notes, MIT will have "to admit that [it] has a suicide problem." But that admission would create a controversy that does not yet exist or is not yet recognized as such beyond the confines of campus. This is another contrast between the Manley and Krueger cases; controversy surrounded Krueger from the outset and the administration had no choice but to admit it.

So, since administrators are not willing to declare suicide a problem, they are limited to installing safety windows at MacGregor. Such measures do not require the admission of an overarching problem because the administration can admit the presence of safety windows while still skirting the issue of suicide.

It should be clear by now that MIT must address its suicide problem. The administration, effectively, is therefore obligated to create a media controversy where none now exists. That this leaves a bad taste in administrators' mouths is understandable. But it's either that or simply hoping that suicide will go away; common sense and the series of suicides over the past few years both indicate that the problem will not simply disappear.

The Institute should not be principally concerned with reaping media rewards from the actions it takes in response to controversy. MIT's primary concern should be its own community the education, the environment, and the health of its students. If setting priorities in order means stoking the embers of a quiet issue into a blaze of controversy, so must it be.

However, there is no reason the administration cannot combine the worthy goal of suicide prevention with the practical desire to look good to the rest of the nation. President Charles M. Vest should use this opportunity to firmly establish MIT as a pioneer in suicide prevention. He should take the offensive, admitting the current problem and replacing defensive cover-up tactics with bold, courageous initiative. Doing so would finally and honestly address a serious problem on campus and could also, as a distinctly less important corollary, ultimately benefit MIT's public image.