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Groups Differ in Service Usage

By Naveen Sunkavally

news Director

MIT is anything but a typical university in nearly every regard. Still, MIT students tend to mirror national trends when it comes to those who seek mental health services and their reasons for doing so.

Women more likely to seek help

National statistics show that women are more likely than men to utilize mental health services. This does not necessarily mean that women are more likely than men to have psychological or psychiatric problems, but simply that “women are more ready to seek out help,” according to Peter Reich, chief of mental health at the MIT Medical Center.

In addition, women may have gender-specific problems that they are more comfortable discussing with a female counselor. For instance, sexual assault and rape are usually issues which demand female counselors.

“Women use more women services,” Reich said, though men are equally likely to see female or male counselors.

At MIT, the percentage of women in the community has increased dramatically over the last decade. Forty-seven percent of the class of 2002 is female, in contrast to the class of 1987, which was only 38 percent female and had proportionally more women than any other class from the founding of the Institute until 1995. This increase in the number of female students even prompted Chancellor Lawrence S. Bacow ’72, in his “Design of the Residence System,” to encourage fraternities to turn co-educational.

The increase in women at MIT, coupled with the fact that women often want to talk to other women, may explain why MIT has more female than male counselors; three of MIT’s four counseling deans are women.

Undergrads, grad students differ

In general, older students are more likely to seek out psychological support services than younger students. “Interestingly, the least utilization is by the freshmen,” Reich said.

Graduate students are more likely to have problems stemming from relationships and spouses. At MIT, graduate students tend to be more socially isolated because so much of their academic and social lives are centered around one department, and sometimes even one lab or professor, according to Counseling Dean Ayida Mthembu.

Graduate students are also “subject to pressures to be productive contributors, to do good research, and meet the expectations of advisors,” said Counseling Dean Arnold Henderson.

Reich also attributed the increased use of mental health services by graduate students to the fact that graduate students do not have the residential support system that undergraduates have.

Although there are more graduate students than undergraduates at MIT, the only housing MIT provides is in Ashdown House, Tang Hall, Green Hall, Eastgate and Westgate, the latter two of which are for married students.

MIT has plans to create more on- and near- campus housing for graduate students, including substantial renovations to Building NW 30 and the long-planned dormitory at Albany and Pacific Streets.

Differences over background

Although students of all backgrounds seek out mental help, students’ attitude towards mental health might vary depending on their upbringing.

“The shame element might come in in a lot of cultures, including African cultures ... American people are the only people who aren’t hit by the stigma [of seeing a counselor], but even then you find people who are proud,” Mthembu said. “I regard [the pride of MIT students] as a given, and am pleasantly surprised when they are open to talking and seeing a doctor.”

“The tradition of therapy is not as common in other countries,” Reich said, referring to foreign students and ethnic subgroups. “When parents come in or call to make inquiries, I have to say, ‘We can’t discuss this with you,’” Reich said.

Seasonal changes bring stress

According to Reich, the months that the Mental Health Department at MIT are most busy are March, April, May, October, and November. The beginning of December, which corresponds to the final exam period, is also busy. During these months, Mental Health serves “significantly more” people than in other months. Reich said it is hard to speculate the reason that certain months are more busy than others.

Leo Osgood, a former Dean on Call for twelve years, said that the calls he received fluctuated with the rhythm of the academic year. During periods of midterms or final exams, when students may find academics aggravating their personal problems, students are more likely to seek out mental help.