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Better State Of Mind

Guest Column
Mike Hall

The Mental Health Task Force’s final report marks the first significant steps MIT has taken to controlling mental illness on campus. By focusing on the unique needs of the MIT student, the Task Force has allowed MIT’s Mental Health Service (MHS) to serve our community more effectively. In a laudable report, however, one flaw is prominent -- the suggestion, even implied, that the stigma of seeking help for mental illnesses can be reduced without comprehensive institutional reform.

The report noted that MHS needed to adapt to student availability. Many students don’t have the time to trek out to MIT Medical’s offices in Building E23 during the day. Students have classes, labs, and activities, and they can seldom find the time to do all of them, let alone add a medical appointment. Fortunately, action to improve availability is already underway. MHS, along with other branches of the MIT Medical Department, is now open until 7:00 p.m. four nights a week. Additionally, the Task Force recommended a further look at opening an MHS satellite office in a central campus location, which would provide West Campus residents with an easily accessible option.

The Task Force also made solid recommendations about increasing publicity for MHS. In its survey, the Task Force discovered that, while 74 percent of students had at least one emotional problem which interfered with their daily functioning, only 28 percent had used MHS. Furthermore, 80 percent of students said that they were unaware that MHS provides daily afternoon walk-in hours that do not require appointments. Both of these statistics can be reversed by increasing awareness of services MHS provides to students. The Task Force recommended increasing awareness through a comprehensive publicity plan, including a new online hub for mental health information, promotional events and forums, advertisements in campus publications, and planned ad blitzes during high-stress academic weeks. Additionally, the Task Force recommended additional training about mental health options for student advisors, GRT/RAs, and housemasters, who should be among the first to notice changes in students’ performance and personality.

Where the Task Force falls short, however, is in its approach to reversing the stigma of seeking help for mental illnesses. While student use of MHS rose to 12 percent during the last five years, it still trails the 14-16 percent usage rate at comparable schools. The stigma at MIT is undoubtedly a contributing factor.

MIT prides itself on its mental toughness. We’re smarter, harder-working, and more resilient than anyone else. There is intense pressure from professors, peers, and graduate schools to be the best. To meet that standard, we must work around the clock to keep pace -- and even if we do that, we may still fail. Most of us can handle the stress most of the time, but there will always be a moment of weakness, when it’s just too much to take. If a situation becomes unbearable, a student only has a few options -- attempt to go on without help, or admit he’s weak and seek help. The Task Force attempted to address the stigma by recommending research into institutional and social barriers to seeking help, followed by a “social norms” advertising campaign designed to break down those barriers. But even with increased advertising, MHS can’t reverse decades of Institute dogma about the need for mental toughness. What is needed is a change in MIT culture.

Then comes the question of what to change about our culture. Should we change at all? Only at our peril, after student outcries from all parts of campus. What if we reduce the workload? No, because our prestige would reduce correspondingly. How about inflating grades like our Ivy counterparts? No, for the same reason as above. How about creating a community by housing every student on campus? No, because problems of peer pressure and grad school placement wouldn’t disappear. How about mandating weekly or monthly meetings with advisors and GRT/RAs? No, because students may claim mandatory meetings are a waste of time and an invasion of privacy.

Overall, the Task Force’s recommendations will result in a marked improvement in MHS at MIT. Their recommendations, however, must be considered along with the reality of MIT culture. The stigma here will not fade without a complete reformation of MIT’s exacting academic standards. The Task Force shouldn’t recommend spending money on the impossible task of changing our culture, but instead on caring for those who need help.

Mike Hall is a member of the Class of 2003.