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Mental Health Solutions

Once again, troubles at MIT have made the front page of The Boston Globe. This time, however, the criticisms are founded. The Globe’s two-part series on suicides at MIT identifies key deficiencies in the Institute’s mental health services. Globe staff writer Patrick Healy drew reasonable conclusions about the severity of the Institute’s problem by showing that MIT’s suicide rates for all students, as well as those for undergraduates, were significantly higher than those of peer institutions. Due to the small size of Healy’s data set and the inability to obtain data from peer institutions such as Stanford, Yale, and Princeton, The Globe’s findings are cloudy. Nevertheless, Healy still presents a compelling case which singles out mental health as one of the Institute’s most serious problems.

Of course, this is not news to MIT students. They already knew that the Institute’s mental health programs fail to address the needs of its students. Over ten percent of students have sought mental help from MIT Medical, and stories abound on campus of the roadblocks these students face when seeking treatment. Appointments to see a particular therapist may need to be made a week or more in advance, which could be too late for a student dealing with depression. The lackadaisical attitude many MIT students express towards mental health problems is also of great concern.

Even more troubling is President Charles M. Vest’s willful ignorance of MIT’s mental health problems. Vest’s administration has spent years trying to solve the alcohol problem, yet has done little to address the greater problem of student depression. In the Globe article, Vest attempted to de-emphasize the severity of MIT’s mental health problem by saying that “university years will always be very intense experiences, whether it is at MIT or elsewhere.” His comment ignores the fact that the MIT experience is more intense than at its peer institutions. The Tech does not wish to see academic expectations lowered. However, we do call upon the administration to recognize the additional stress on its students and provide ample mental health services.

To reach that level of service, the Institute must take steps towards improving its mental health services. The first step is for students to support the Student/Staff Task Force on Mental Health, a collaboration between the administration and members of the Undergraduate Association Committee on Student Life, led by CSL Co-Chair David A. Mellis ’02. The task force’s advice will help shape the administration’s policies on mental health, which is why it is essential that the administration listen to Mellis and other students when they describe the roadblocks they face in seeking medical assistance.

In addition, the Institute should begin today by changing some of its policies on treatment for mental health. One good start would be to offer full medical coverage of outsourced therapy for long-term patients. In addition, if a patient visits MIT Medical more than once for counseling, extensive communication between different mental health providers must be ensured in order to better serve the patient.

Mental health providers must also communicate with MIT staff advisers, such as graduate resident tutors, housemasters, and academic advisers. These advisers must be trained to recognize the signs of depression and other mental illnesses, and must be knowledgeable enough about MIT’s counseling services to recommend the right course of action for a troubled student.

As advisers become more comfortable discussing mental health issues, the stigma associated with seeking help will dissolve and awareness of options will increase. Students will feel less apprehensive about approaching the reception desk on the Medical Center’s third floor and asking to make an appointment.