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Mental Health Report Admits MIT’s Failures

By Sandra M. Chung


The final draft of the Mental Health Task Force report makes several recommendations for improving mental health services at MIT, including expanding MIT Medical’s Mental Health Department’s hours and staff, hiring a professional advertising firm to promote mental health awareness, and appointing an administrative coordinator and standing committee to oversee the implementation of its recommendations.

Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75 has embraced the task force’s report, giving the go-ahead for the implementation of several recommendations even before the report was finalized. The Institute is already developing plans for or acting on several uncontroversial recommendations, including the addition of administrative and medical staff.

“There was no point in waiting,” Clay said.

Dean for Student Life Larry G. Benedict, who represented the Department of Student Life on the task force, said he is confident that most of the measures listed in the report will be implemented within the next several years.

MIT Medical expands staff, hours

In terms of accessibility, the report clearly delineated the need for additional Mental Health staff and hours. Mental Health Service hours have been extended to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and medical health liaisons have been assigned to all living groups. The Extended Health Plan now covers unlimited outpatient visits for psychotherapy.

The task force recommended further extending Mental Health Service hours to 9 p.m. three nights a week, and adding late-night services such as on-site coverage until midnight.

Dr. Kristine A. Girard ’86, task force co-chair and Associate Chief of Mental Health, is currently involved in budgeting and staffing discussions. The Mental Health Department hopes to report back to Benedict and Clay on staff expansion by December.

Network benefits from new staff

An interim committee appointed by Clay will be in charge of implementing the task force’s recommendations until a new standing Committee on Mental Health is appointed in spring 2002, or until an existing committee is reassigned and rechartered to serve as the new committee.

The interim committee will consist of task force members and representatives from the Office of the Dean for Student Life and MIT Medical, as well as some additional student representatives. Clay said he plans to release the names of the interim committee members after Thanksgiving.

The task force recommended the appointment of an Administrative Coordinator of Campus Support Services. MIT is currently searching for someone to fill the role of the new administrator, who will report back to both the Department of Student Life and MIT Medical. The new administrator will oversee coordination, communication, and community outreach programs, serving as an information resource to the community.

Report recommends outreach

The task force advocated the development of training and outreach programs that promote awareness and increase student comfort with using support services. The current system relies heavily on students to seek help on their own, when many are just beginning to be responsible for their own health needs. The task force concluded that student reluctance to utilize support programs cripples their effectiveness.

A pilot program for a Residence Support Team has already begun. The Residence Support Team pairs health care professionals and counselors to living groups with the goals of getting to know students and lowering barriers to utilizing mental health services. Other recommendations for outreach included implementing a comprehensive social marketing campaign and training faculty members and residential support (e.g. housemasters and graduate resident tutors) to serve as mental health resources for students.

Comparison study shows MIT lag

The Undergraduate Association Committee on Student Life sent a confidential mental health service survey to comparable academic institutions in May 2000. David A. Mellis ’02, who served as co-chair of the task force from November 2000 to May 2001, and task force member Bradley T. Ito ’02 were responsible for the survey and analysis of its results. Mellis said that much of the data used in the report was gathered by task force member and Mental Health Chief Dr. Peter Reich at a mental health conference.

The task force’s data showed MIT lagging behind in both student utilization of mental health services and the number of mental health full time equivalents per student. Nationwide, the number of students seeking mental health services in the past five years has increased greatly. Other institutions in the study have expanded their mental health staff to increase demand. The number of MIT students using Mental Health Services increased 50 percent from 1995 to 2000, yet the size of the mental health staff remained constant during that same period.

Student survey reveals low trust

In March 2001, the task force sent out a survey to a random sample of 1000 MIT undergraduate and graduate students. About 74 percent of respondents reported having had significant, life-disrupting emotional problems, but only 28 percent had used the MIT Mental Health Services. Some reported having to wait more than 10 days for initial appointments, and most were unaware of daily walk-in hours.

Only about half of respondents said they would feel comfortable going to MIT Mental Health, though more than half of the students who had used the Mental Health Services reported a good to excellent experience. The survey also evaluated the Counseling and Support Services, which had higher rates of user satisfaction and shorter average waits for appointments. The survey form is included as an appendix in the task force report.

Feedback refines report

The task force also considered input in the form of e-mails from and discussions with parents, faculty, staff, and students. An earlier draft of the report was released to the MIT community for a review period that lasted throughout September and until October 19.

Efrat Shavit ’02, who co-chaired the task force and helped write the final draft of the report, said that most of the changes involved fine-tuning the recommendations to make them more specific, concise, and easier to implement.

Globe elicits negative reaction

Media reaction to mental health inquiries at MIT includes prominent articles in The Boston Globe and other large newspapers that largely take negative stances on the issue. “I don’t feel the [November 15 article in The Boston Globe] reflected the breadth of the mental health report,” Benedict said.

Shavit concurred, saying that “The Globe has presented the facts in a very unfair and biased manner.” Clay said of the media reaction, “I don’t agree to the extent that the focus is on suicide. This is about the health and well-being of all 10,000 students, not just the one or two that might commit suicide.”

In addition to the media, a number of schools have expressed interest in MIT’s investigation of its mental health services, requesting copies of the report and advice on how to conduct their own evaluations. “Problems faced by MIT students are not unique to MIT students,” Shavit said. “Clearly we are not alone,” Girard said.

The text of the report is available online at .