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Covering Suicides in The Tech

Beckett W. Sterner

News stories about MIT community members who have committed suicide are distressing to everyone involved. Why, then, does The Tech keep writing (or attempting to write) them? Having reported a number of those articles in my time as a news staffer and editor for The Tech, I’ll do my best to add an inside perspective. What follows is my opinion solely, and not necessarily anyone else’s at The Tech.

MIT is a happy place for many, but not all. Over the past 40 years, we’ve had about 50 suicides, depending on the accuracy of The Tech’s records and how you count. Unfortunately, this puts MIT above the average for other universities and means that mental health is a big, perennial issue for the community. Although MIT has many skilled staff and administrators who care deeply about students, it became painfully clear with Elizabeth Shin’s suicide in 2000 that MIT needed to do much more. (I should note that some have questioned whether her death by self-inflicted burns alone in her room can be proved a suicide.) Shin’s suicide galvanized the MIT administration to re-examine MIT Medical’s mental health program in a task force report, some but not all of which has been implemented. At a deeply impersonal level, then, a public record of suicides at MIT is important to assessing the Institute’s health as a community.

Unfortunately, MIT does not, and in some cases, cannot provide this public record. Federal law prevents administrators and doctors from discussing details of their interactions with a student that could reveal that student’s identity, and other laws make parts of a person’s medical records confidential. That said, MIT is not confronting its problem of mental health in the same publicly open way in which it acknowledged its problem of sexism ten years ago. No statistics are easily available to the public on the number of suicides at MIT in the last X number of years, attempted suicides, or diagnosed cases of depression, although in 2000 The Tech did obtain long-term statistics from Dean Robert M. Randolph on suicides (see http://www-tech.mit.edu/V120/N6/comp6.6n.html). When I last checked a year ago, however, MIT didn’t even explicitly track the number of students it sent for mental health evaluation at McLean Hospital. While many at MIT may privately spend hours every day helping those in need of care, I can’t but suspect that in public it’s just more convenient to deal with the issue only as necessary.

Sadly, “as necessary” often means whenever the Boston Globe or The Tech find out a student has committed suicide. Neither has done an exceptional job of reporting about mental health at MIT in the last few years — at The Tech, mainly because student reporters have trouble understanding the big picture before they graduate (the Globe has a similar problem with staff turnover in their Higher Ed section). This means that the issue, and any discussion surrounding it, is usually focused on a particular, recent suicide. Thus, although The Tech’s coverage of suicides provides the most comprehensive public record available, the coverage is unduly dominated by the personal details of those who have died.

What The Tech writes about suicides, and deaths in general, often sparks the most controversy and unhappiness. While the circumstances of a suicide are often the last thing we want to remember about a person, how someone died is an unavoidable question in both a news story and an obituary. Briefly, The Tech recently has used two formats to cover deaths: first the news story about the death itself, then an obituary about the person. Ideally, but not always, both get written. One reason to split the two is that it allows the reporter to do a more detailed job of writing the obituary, especially if the death happens close to the paper’s deadline.

More generally, the seriousness of any death makes gaps in the reporting of a story even more glaring. There’s no real excuse for incomplete reporting in these cases, but having written a number of stories about deaths or suicides, I can try to explain why it happens. Obviously, the first difficulty is that often no one wants to talk to a reporter about anything negative regarding the person who has died. If they do talk they often only agree to do so off the record, meaning that the reporter cannot publish the information given by that source; in many of the stories I’ve written, I’ve known a decent amount more than I could write in the story. The second problem is that the official records, such as the medical examiner’s report, for example, are not public. When you add in the unpleasantness of coaxing the information you need from a friend or relative of someone who just died, news articles about suicides and other deaths are often the most difficult for a reporter to write.

None of this changes the fact that these stories require the highest level of care and effort, but hopefully it provides context for what the News Department has done in the past. Personally, I believe MIT administrators and MIT Medical need to take a more public and active role in acknowledging and addressing the problem of mental health at the Institute. In the meantime, The Tech is beholden to continue documenting every suicide at MIT in the most sensitive and complete way possible.