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Taking Action on Mental Health

Veena Thomas

My dad always says that “analysis leads to paralysis,” and nowhere does this ring truer than at MIT. We can analyze and debate, sure -- one look at the mit-talk discussion list proves that. But for all the publicity and discussion regarding suicide in recent months, especially after the infamous Globe series, what is MIT really doing to address the issue? Are we analyzing, or are we implementing immediate action to benefit the students?

I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for the mental health task force, especially for the students who truly do their part to try to improve the system. But MIT’s knee-jerk reaction to any controversy, any situation on campus, is to form a task force to “study the issue.” The committees, after months of work, report their findings. The administration can choose to implement the recommendations, think about them, or ignore them altogether, as with the campus dining reform task force. Any improvements to the system may or may not happen, and if they do occur, they may take months.

It’s ironic that MIT places the burden of reforming the mental health system on stressed out, overworked students. Why not hire outside consultants who could provide a truly objective, professional view on MIT services, thus relieving MIT students of the responsibility? Students should still be able to provide input on the problem, without feeling compelled to solve everything by themselves on no budget.

We boast about our world-class faculty. How about having a world-class mental health department to match?

Perhaps the place to start reform is with Dr. Peter Reich, Chief of MIT Mental Health, who could certainly do more to help the student body. “I haven’t gone to the well and demanded more for student care,” Reich said to the Globe. And yet, he also said, “I think we’re doing an adequate job.”

How can he think Mental Health is doing an “adequate” job after reading the recent mental health feature in The Tech? More than one student went on the record describing their unfortunate encounters with MIT Mental Health Services. From being denied an appointment for over a week, to facing nighttime on-call doctors unwilling to drive back to campus to help patients, several students had unforgettable experiences that never should have happened. Luckily, none of these ended in tragedy, but who knows what will happen in the future?

The way Mental Health Services views students justifies at least some of its bad reputation. They don’t seem to realize that helping students, and being on their side, is their job. Take, for instance, Dr. Reich’s column in The Tech. In it, Dr. Reich describes “problems that get in the way of students getting the most out of the Mental Health Service.” Reading his column, I thought that at last MIT students would get to hear, in his own words, what the Chief of Mental Health Services had to say about the problems plaguing his service.

But no one was more surprised than I to learn that Dr. Reich felt the number one problem was “ignorance.” “Some students hardly know that we exist,” he said, and went on to describe how few knew of the many services available to them. I was in shock. Dr. Reich’s job is to help students with problems, and to attract them to use the Mental Health Services, and he thinks he can accomplish that by referring to students’ “ignorance?” He’s more disconnected from students than I thought. If students don’t know about what’s available to them (and some cite not being able to find the information after looking hard), then it is the service’s fault for failing to publicize properly.

A freshman committed suicide two years ago, and MIT fixed the windows, making it difficult for students to jump from them. At Harvard, three graduate students with the same adviser killed themselves, one directly citing the adviser in a note left behind. Harvard’s response? They install a lounge for graduate students, with its own espresso bar. Sometimes administrations just seem to miss the point.

So that no one misses them, I’ll spell out what needs to be done to improve the Mental Health Services at MIT:

1. All students need to know what services are available to them. The service needs to increase publicity in such a way that students will pay attention. For an excellent example of this, see Nightline. Who on campus doesn’t know DEF-TUV-TUV-OPER-OPER, 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.? Word of mouth travels fast, and good recommendations are a very effective advertisement. Mental Health Services should take note and market themselves as agressively.

2. MIT Mental Health Services needs to be overhauled with more flexible hours and better, increased staff. Anyone who doesn’t put the welfare of students first, as should be their job, needs to go. Students turn to therapists as their last resort, and if they feel that even the last resort doesn’t care about them, who knows what the consequences will be?

3. Take action now. Instead of waiting months to maybe implement changes, start now. Lives may be saved in the meantime.

With a little effort, I am convinced that MIT can help many students and provide excellent, accessible mental health care for all. It may be difficult, but no one said that reforming mental health at MIT would be easy.