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Shin’s Death a Suicide

Fire Officials Rule That Burns Were Self-induced

By Frank Dabek


Cambridge Fire Department and Suffolk County officials have confirmed that the death of Elizabeth Shin ’02 was the result of self-induced burns. The confirmation comes as MIT begins to review its mental health services; Shin was under treatment prior to her death, the third suicide of the term.

Cambridge Deputy Chief Gerald Reardon said the department concluded Shin started the April 10 blaze based on the fact that she was alone in her locked room and no accelerants were present. There is “no other explanation” for the fire besides self-induced ignition of clothing, Reardon said.

A separate report from the Suffolk County medical examiner classified Shin’s death four days after the fire as a suicide.

More than a month after the incident, questions remain about MIT’s ability to deal with students facing mental illness or instability. In response to the death, student government and administrators are reviewing campus mental health services.

The Undergraduate Association’s Committee on Student Life has begun to consider the status of mental health support services at MIT. The group is collecting information about how other universities approach the issue of mental health. The committee hopes to release a report over the summer, possibly with recommendations, said former Dormitory Council president Jennifer A. Frank ’00, who sat in on several committee meetings.

In a separate initiative, Chancellor Lawrence S. Bacow ’75 and Peter Reich, chief of mental health, met to discuss possible changes to MIT’s mental health services with Eric J. Plosky ’99. Plosky, a Tech editor, was quoted in an April Boston Globe article as saying that the problem of suicide on campus could be addressed by “simple measures.”

Like the UA’s effort, Bacow hopes to learn from other schools. “I have asked Dr. Reich whether other universities are doing anything that we are not to address student mental health issues,” he said. “If we can learn from others, we will.”

Bacow did not predict major changes to services, however. “My sense is that we are quite aggressive relative to our peer institutions in responding to student mental health needs,” he said.

Both the UA and Bacow’s investigations are still in the earliest stages.

Suicide has been suspected in Shin’s death for some time. Several newspapers including the New Jersey Star-Ledger and the Globe have reported the death as a suicide in articles which revealed that Shin was struggling with depression.

Deputy Reardon said that suicide was “apparent from the beginning” but that the department would “rather err on the side of caution.”

Reports in the press focused on MIT’s decision not to inform Shin’s parents of her treatment for depression. Shin’s parents were unaware that their daughter had visited the Medical Center and was prescribed anti-depressant drugs.

Senior Associate Dean Robert M. Randolph told the Globe that MIT honored Shin’s wish not to inform her parents, a policy that is currently under review. “The question we have been reviewing is whether we should specifically counter the wishes of individuals,” Randolph said.

Bacow defended the policy. “Some of these students may not seek the help that they need if they believe their parents will be notified of their treatment,” he said.