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Mental Health Plans Begin to Take Shape

By Sandra M. Chung


MIT has initiated a pilot program for a Residence Support Team that will assign physicians and counselors to living groups. The goal of the program is getting to know students and reducing their reluctance to seek help when they need it, Mental Health Task Force co-chairs announced at last Wednesday’s faculty meeting.

Task Force co-chairs Dr. Kristine Girard ’86 and Efrat Shavit ’02 presented the report’s findings and notified the faculty of recent and imminent changes to the Mental Health system in direct response to the report. These changes include the establishment of the Residence Support Team program, an extension of MIT Mental Health Services’ hours, and the hiring of four Residential Life Associates who will be available in residence halls during the evenings to offer students advice and assistance.

“The goal is for everyone in the community to have at least one contact that they know as a person,” Shavit said.

The extended MIT hospital insurance plan for students contains complete coverage for unlimited outpatient psychotherapy visits with no copayments, a change that went into effect September 1. Seventy percent of MIT students enrolled in the Extended Plan last year. MIT Mental Health Services extended its hours of operation two hours and is now open Monday through Thursday from 8:30 A.M. to 7 P.M.

According to the report, utilization of MIT mental health services has changed significantly in the past six years. In 1995, eight percent of the student body was seen in-house annually; in 2000 that figure had grown to 12 percent.

Task Force sponsors study

A Task Force study comparing MIT mental health statistics to those from eight other major universities found similar increases among all nine schools in the number of students seeking help with psychological problems. However, according to the survey, a higher overall percentage of students utilized on-campus mental health services at institutions other than MIT (14-16 percent at other schools versus 12 percent of MIT).

The Institute ranked seventh of the nine schools in the study according to the ratio of mental health staff to the student population. MIT was also the only school in the study which did not have evening hours or appointments for clinical and medical services.

In a survey of MIT graduate students and undergraduates conducted last spring, “The majority of respondents though that MIT students perceived the MIT Mental Health Service to be mediocre in its regard, accessibility, and helpfulness,” Shavit said. “Accessibility is the main problem.”

Shavit also said MIT students tend to function on a schedule shifted toward afternoon and evening hours, whereas Mental Health Services runs on a standard business schedule.

The five most common student requests for changes in MIT Mental Health were quick appointments, evening hours, afternoon appointments, web and e-mail access, and 24-hour on-site coverage, according to Shavit.

Students reported overwhelmingly that they would discuss an emotional problem first with friends and family, followed by a mental health provider or a counseling dean, Shavit said. While 94 percent of respondents were aware of mental health services, only 20 percent were aware of walk-in hours. Of the 28 percent of respondents who had used MIT mental health services, 35 percent reported a wait of 10 or more days prior to initial appointments.

The Task Force recommended adding 6-10 full-time equivalents to current mental health staff and hiring “moonlighters” on a call system to provide on-site coverage until midnight, and by increasing afternoon availability of current staffers. Administrative changes might include creating a standing committee on mental health, redefining confidentiality, and establishing mandatory MIT insurance.

Faculty unaware of roles

Some faculty members wanted more information about their roles as part of MIT’s mental health support network. Materials Science and Engineering Professor Donald R. Sadoway recommended presentations to raise awareness of available mental health services, especially among instructors of core subjects such as Physics I (8.01) and Solid-State Chemistry (3.091).

Several professors also expressed concern about current confidentiality restrictions which keep them in the dark about the condition of students or advisees whom they may have referred to other mental health support.

An August draft of the report can be seen at by members of the MIT community. The Mental Health Task Force will continue to receive community input and modify their recommendations until the end of October, when the report will be finalized and made available to the general public.

The Mental Health Task Force, which consists of 20 undergraduates, graduates, faculty, and administrators, first convened in November 2000. Its goal is “to explore a set of issues related to the health of the community and to return to the community with suggestions for how to address those issues,” said current Chancellor Phillip L. Clay.