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Mental Health Report Is Only First Step

Though the Mental Health Task Force report may seem like another vague report issued by the recent chain of Institute task forces, it has the potential to have a real, positive impact on MIT. The scope of the report appropriately focuses on both the individual at MIT and the mental health support services as a whole. The report to the Chancellor identifies the shortcomings of the current mental health system. The Tech applauds MIT for admitting that the Institute’s care has, indeed, been lacking, especially when compared to peer institutions. Many of the recommendations of the task force should be implemented quickly as they are well-defined and beneficial to students, staff, and faculty at MIT.

Mental health has come to the forefront of campus issues in recent years as an alarming number of student suicides have drawn attention to the quality of support services on campus. Steadily over recent years, MIT Mental Health Services has seen a substantial increase in the demand for mental health care. This fact is noted in the task force report. The task force also identifies the fact that there has been no accompanying increase in staffing for mental health. A fundamental problem exists within this system, where more than a third of students who sought mental health services had to wait more than ten days for an appointment. When the task force issued preliminary findings, MIT initiated an extension of evening hours and outpatient coverage for mental health services. MIT should be commended for beginning improvements on services even before the report was finalized. However, a major task force report was probably not necessary for the Institute to realize the existence of this problem. One would hope that MIT would be able to identify and react to such a clear staffing shortage.

College is typically the first time that MIT undergraduates find themselves responsible for their own health care. The task force report wisely identifies this as a large hurdle for the mental health system. Prior to arriving at MIT, a parent or guardian might notice a student’s emotional or personal problems, and this student would then be taken to a mental health care specialist. On campus, such a safety net is rare and unreliable. Few adults have sufficient contact with students to make such a judgment, and few peers are going to take their friends to see a psychiatrist. MIT wisely addresses the issues of education and awareness in great detail in the task force report, calling for a three- to five-year “social marketing campaign, to begin changing the MIT culture so that students feel more comfortable seeking help.” This is crucial to the success of mental health services at MIT.

MIT students are intelligent, independent, challenge-seeking individuals who survive the Institute’s rigors with an “I can do anything” spirit. Unfortunately, this attitude may cause some to stigmatize mental health care. Only through a sustained campaign can MIT become a place without a stigma attached to seeking counseling support.

The Tech believes that a central mental health care web site, prescribed in the task force report, is a simple yet essential tool in making care more accessible and understandable to students. When MIT students need information, the Web is typically the source of first resort, especially for a topic such as mental health, where students might feel awkward seeking advice from peers. MIT admits that some aspects of its support services, especially confidentiality policies, are confusing and poorly defined. This web site would be an ideal location to make these policies clear and publicly available. MIT must also find some way to measure the quality of care on a consistent basis. Student input must be sought not only with a one-time task force, but also as a regular quality check for the support system at MIT. A web site could be used for this purpose as well, to allow anonymous feedback.

The Mental Health Task Force report is a good start to improving the quality of life for many individuals who seek help on campus. However, the report itself is not going to accomplish anything. The key is implementation, and The Tech hopes that MIT can effectively enact the changes proposed by the task force.