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Student Alleges MIT Overreacted, Hospitalized Him Against His Will

By Beckett W. Sterner and Jenny Zhang


A freshman has accused MIT Medical and the Office for Student Life of overreacting by placing him in a hospital for almost a week against his will following a visit to MIT medical.

Administrators have said that the allegation, made by Samuel B. Seong ’08 in a letter published in today’s Tech (page 5), omits important information about the circumstances and is not accurate.

Seong wrote in the letter that he was admitted to an area hospital last Friday following a visit to MIT Medical. He wrote that he jokingly answered “yes” to a social worker when asked if he was feeling suicidal, after which the doctors chose to send him to a local hospital for a mental health assessment that lasted about a week. He wrote that although the doctors at the hospital told him he was fine, MIT did not approve his return to campus for several days, forcing him to stay in the hospital against his will or be placed on medical leave.

Senior Associate Dean for Students Robert M. Randolph said that the author of the letter would likely be out of the hospital by the end of yesterday.

Randolph said that there is “a lot more to the story than the student has been telling people,” and that the student “was angry about the process” for mental health assessment.

Chief of Mental Health Service Alan E. Siegel said that students would not be hospitalized for simply mentioning suicidal feelings. He said conditions suggesting the student is unable to function normally, such as problems with eating or socializing, a past history of problems, or the imminent threat of harm to self could lead to hospitalization.

“We have lots of options when someone is in distress other than going to the hospital,” he said, “but we have to be fairly persuaded that there is a substantive risk of harm.”

Mark D. Laughter, a friend of Seong’s at Sigma Nu Fraternity, said that when Seong left for MIT medical on Friday, “we expected him back immediately or Saturday morning” at the latest.

Seong has no access to e-mail, and “his only contact is [through] his cell phone,” Laughter said yesterday. He said Seong had unsuccessfully been trying to speak with MIT Medical staff.

Dean of Student Life Larry G. Benedict said that there are many inaccuracies in the letter, but that the author of the letter is “being taken care of and his health is not in danger.”

Student not suicidal, friends say

Several of Seong’s friends said they felt confident that he had not been suicidal and did not belong in the hospital.

“I can see Sam saying something [about suicide] jokingly,” but there’s no way he would be suicidal, said Raul Garcia ’07, one of Seong’s friends. Garcia said Seong tended to joke a lot and was very laid-back. “If he found out he’d done badly on a test, he’d just take the make-up exam or study for the next one,” but would not become upset about it, Garcia said.

Garcia said he had last seen and spoken to Seong about a week or two ago. Seong had appeared to be his normal self, he said.

Laughter said he and some of Seong’s other friends had visited MIT medical during the last few days to voice their opinions that Seong should not remain hospitalized. Staff from MIT Medical listened to Laughter, he said, but could not divulge information on Seong’s mental status. Laughter had been visiting Seong at the hospital, he said.

“There’s absolutely no reason” for him to still be at the hospital, Laughter said.

Treatment plan follows assessment

Siegel said that once a student is hospitalized, the assessment period generally takes a week and includes several days of developing a treatment plan while the student is in the hospital.

Siegel said that when considering releasing the student, the doctors and administrators must ask, “Are they well enough to come back to school?” Specifically, “Will their recovery be stable enough and sturdy enough so that they can reengage in their life?”

However, if the student does not want treatment, we can get stuck “in a situation where the hospital can’t hold a person against their will but they don’t really have a place to discharge the person to,” Siegel said.

In that case, he said “we have to make a decision about whether we believe it’s safe enough for them to come back to the dorm.”

Siegel said MIT had sent about five students this term to a local hospital for assessment. He said students are generally sent to McLean Hospital in Belmont, or to Cambridge Hospital.

In general, he said that MIT has a more flexible medical withdrawal program, through which students can withdrawal mid-semester with relatively few consequences, than many other colleges do. As a result, MIT has more flexibility and options besides committing a student. This term, about 20 students have returned after taking medical withdrawals in previous terms, he said.