MIT Suicides Reflect National Trends
The MIT community takes pride in its reputation for working hard. But following the death of Richard Guy in the fall, the tendency of MIT to force students to “drink from a firehouse,” was linked to alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide by a score of national media reports. An analysis of historical data, however, reveals that suicide rates at MIT are now lower than the national averages for the same age demographic, having declined since statistics were first kept in the mid-1960s.
“In many respects this is a very caring community. The view that this place is a ‘meat grinder’ is wrong,” said Dean of Student Life Robert M. Randolph.
A connection between MIT’s academic pressure and suicide can not be substantiated. “It is wrong to assume that things that happen here began here,” said Randolph. Stresses leading to suicide can come from parental pressures, religious crises, and mental or physical health problems. Randolph emphasizes that “we have a large community here of a lot of different people coming from many different places. There are not a lot of common threads.”
MIT below national rates in 1990s
MIT has lost 47 students to suicide since 1964, which translates to a rate of 14.6 per 100,000 student years. Over the period examined, MIT’s suicide rate has fallen from well above above the national average in the sixties and seventies to below average in the past two decades.
The relation of “per 100,000 student years” is used to compare suicide rates among different populations. Each year a student spends at a university is considered one student year, so summing each year’s enrollment over the time period under consideration results in the total number of student years.
MIT’s suicide rate peaked in the 1980s at nearly 19 per 100,000 student years. Throughout the 1990s the rates have been nearly half that of the previous decade at 10 per 100,000 student years. “None of us will be satisfied until the number is zero, which will never happen. But we can be encouraged by the fact that the rates aren’t going up,” said Randolph.
The 47 deaths include students taking time off for personal reasons, such as Seth L. Karon ’01 who died last week in an apparent suicide, as they are still considered members of the community.
Study shows low student rate
Dr. Morton Silverman, director of the University of Chicago’s Student Counseling and Resource Services conducted a study which showed that suicide rates among students during the 1980s were lower than among the general population at 7.5 per 100,000 student years.
Silverman’s study examined primarily Big Ten college campuses and provides an interesting comparison between student life at large public schools and small, competitive private schools: During the period of Silverman’s study, the suicide rate at MIT was higher than both that of the schools in the study and the nation.
Students at universities of similar caliber and demographics seem to have likelihoods of suicide equivalent to those at MIT. Information released by Randolph was dated, describing suicide rates at Harvard University, Yale University, and the University of California at Berkeley from 1936 to 1961, making comparisons difficult. These schools, as well as Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania, were unable to provide any data regarding suicide trends over the past three decades. A study published in the Journal of College Student Personnel in 1987 found that only 14 percent of schools keep suicide records.
Cornell University is one peer institution that does maintain moderately complete records of their student deaths in response to a common perception that they have a high suicide rate. Cornell had eight students take their own lives in the past ten years. With about 19,000 students on campus, Cornell has a suicide rate of about 4.3 per 100,000 student years for that time period, far below both MIT and national rates.
Differences among sexes, year
When examining the record of suicide on campus a number of interesting patterns emerge: only one student, Michael P. Manley ’02, committed suicide in his first year at MIT since at least 1964, and women are far less likely to commit suicide as compared to men.
National statistics show that women are more likely to attempt suicide and men are more likely to succeed. Out of the 47 MIT students who committed suicide, only four were females.
Using the Reports to the President to find male and female enrollment rates takes into account the gradually increasing female population on campus over time. This reveals that females at MIT commit suicide at a rate of 6.3 per 100,000 female student years. This compares to a rate of male student suicides at MIT of 16.6 per 100,000 male student years.
It has been hypothesized that the overall suicide rate has decreased precisely because women are less likely to commit suicide and their population has grown on campus. However, comparing suicide rates of the sexes relative to the population of each on campus shows that the rate of suicide has declined independently for each sex in the 1990s.
Another area of comparison is between graduate and undergraduate suicide rates. While Silverman’s study showed that graduate students are more likely to take their own lives, this is not consistent with MIT statistics. The graduate student suicide rate is 8.4 per 100,000 graduate student years while the undergraduate rate is 21.2 per 100,000 undergraduate student years.
The chronology of suicides also reveals several trends. Silverman found that suicides are most likely to occur in the month of October, most likely due to pressures resulting from the new academic year. This holds true for MIT as well, with a disproportionally large number (10) of the 47 suicides occurring during October.
Suicides also appear in clusters across the decades. A cluster can be defined as a group two or more suicides occurring within about a month of each other. Clusters occurred in the spring of 1973, the fall of 1977, 1986 and 1987, and the summer of 1991. The longest period between suicides is 32 months, meaning that every graduating class since 1965 has had to face the loss of a community member who took his own life.
Study has potential error
A number of uncertainties make an analysis such as this one difficult.
Causes of deaths in the 1960s were often misnamed. A drug related death may have been termed a suicide, and a suicide may be termed an accident. The differing standards introduce a small error.
Records of student deaths at MIT have been kept, somewhat loosely, dating to the mid-sixties. Uncertainty remains because several student deaths (not suicides) were reported in The Tech, but were not listed in the data provided by Randolph.
Commuting students also pose a problem: the schools in Silverman’s study may not be able to monitor their students as well as MIT. MIT is notable in this regard because even students who are taking academic leave are considered part of the MIT community and their well-being is followed more closely (although imperfectly) than at other schools.