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Announcing the Creation Of the Mental Health Initiative

Ali Wyne

The year 2000 will, in all likelihood, be remembered as one of MIT’s darkest. In April of that year, Elizabeth Shin, then a sophomore in her spring term, committed suicide by setting fire to herself. Her death sent shockwaves across the country, and indeed provoked so much controversy that The New York Times Sunday Magazine featured a prominent article -- “Who Was Responsible For Elizabeth Shin?” -- discussing this subject in its April 2002 issue. Admittedly, it is difficult to revisit an incident whose horror and tragedy defy words. The case of Elizabeth Shin is, furthermore, one which some might believe to be an isolated instance. It is, however, indicative of a problem that is much more pervasive than we would like to believe, not only here at MIT, but also at institutions of learning throughout the country.

According to a 2003 survey conducted by the American College Health Association, more than 40 percent of undergraduate students felt “too depressed” to effectively function at one time or another during the course of the academic year. Another recent survey concluded that 10 percent of college students actually suffered from clinical depression.

While the roots of mental illnesses, and ostensibly depression, are still not fully understood, research suggests that stress is one of the most important factors responsible for causing and exacerbating depression in an individual. The New York Times article which I referenced earlier asserted that “since the 1990s, MIT [has battled] a reputation as a pressure cooker.” It is no surprise that MIT nurtures an academic atmosphere which is remarkably intense; in its most recent rankings, The Princeton Review described MIT as the “toughest school” to which to gain admission. I mention such assessments of MIT not in a negative light, and quite to the contrary, believe that it is wonderful that academic rigor distinguishes it from even the best institutions of learning in this country. However, it is crucial to develop ways to help students cope with an environment that is always demanding, and often overwhelming.

As such, MIT should approach the problem of mental illness not by merely responding to its violent manifestations, such as suicide, but rather by developing a more comprehensive system that addresses its roots and effects. MIT has taken many steps towards formulating such an approach; it is greatly expanding its Mental Health Service and, most promisingly, is developing an online system whereby students can anonymously report their concerns and difficulties to a certified clinician. These efforts, and more importantly the individuals and groups responsible for them, are admirable. However, the only way to make certain that these efforts have a significant, measurable impact on campus is to ensure that they continue and expand.

It is in this spirit that I wish to announce the formation of the Mental Health Initiative, a Undergraduate Association Committee on Student Life sub-organization founded on one simple principle: that all students at MIT should be able to succeed to the fullest of their potential and have a rich and fulfilling undergraduate experience without being hampered by depression or other mental illnesses. Our objectives are to give the subject of mental health the attention that it deserves, to raise awareness of the mental health services that are available here at MIT, and ultimately, to work together with advocacy groups on campus, including MIT’s administration, faculty, and student government, to develop and implement solutions which will improve the overall quality of life of MIT’s student body.

We are preparing to launch “Mental Health Week.” As its name suggests, it’s a week which will consist of panels, seminars, workshops, and a host of other activities dedicated to raising the profile of mental health issues here at MIT. It will be held in early March, and we hope to make it an annual event. Even though the Mental Health Initiative is still in its inception, we have already started to network with important individuals and groups on campus who share our enthusiasm and commitment to issues relating to mental health here at MIT, and we have delineated clear goals which we hope to accomplish in the coming months. We realize that our goals are ambitious, and achieving them will take extensive time, planning, resources, energy, and dedication over the next several years. We are confident, however, that with the support of the MIT community, those goals can and will be realized.

Ali Wyne ’08 is a UA Senator and member of the Mental Health Initiative.