(As a preface to this letter, I make no assumptions about accidental or intentional nature of the sad passing of Brian G. Anderson ’13, and stand with the MIT community in sending our thoughts and wishes to his family and friends. Yet, I believe his death, as the most recent loss of a student on campus, brings to light a very concerning issue on campus.)
A number of people have spoken about the recent tragic student losses at MIT. Yet, MIT needs also to realize that for every suicide, there’s a magnitude of students who consider the option daily. Getting to the root of depression and stopping loss of life is not an easy problem but trust me, crazier, more idealistic ideas have been accomplished on this campus.
I believe that depression and suicidal tendencies are complex issues at MIT. MIT students are very independent, self-pushing, and perfection-driven — which is a dangerous combination for depression. In addition, the “do what it takes to get it done” mentality is also dangerous for suicide. Moreover, MIT students are rational in the most mechanical way — if they see themselves as the weakest part of the system, then they will further remove themselves. These feelings manifest themselves as someone loses healthy perspective on life. This “skewed” thinking becomes exacerbated with (and is partly the cause of) an increasing loss of connection to people, yielding fewer rewarding conversations; friendships and feelings of closeness with trusted friends, professors, and family; and creating a system of vicious cycles. Also, as we know, the signs of depression and end-of-life decisions are not always visible to one’s friends and family, especially when the affected friend has “perfectionist” or “overachieving” characteristics. It’s a slippery slope that is often faced alone.
It’s clear that MIT needs to forge (or convolve, if you will) a stronger net to support brilliance at all stages of development — NOT pose a sink-or-swim environment. What we have in place — S3, Mental Health, the together.mit.edu signs that are very encouraging (but only point us in a loop back to S3), etc. — is not working. (S3, as Shin Nee Wong aptly described in “Getting better by leaving the Institute,” on Feb. 28, 2012, is very administrative and often takes three weeks to schedule a meeting.)
MIT needs to create a task force on what is making students depressed, over-anxious, and ready to end their lives. Record what panics or overwhelming thoughts our students are having and address these on the whole. (MIT is great at task force projects; for an example, see MIT’s active role in changing in number of female professors in the past 20 years.)
This task force should tell us:
How many students are on antidepressants or other medication prescribed by psychologists at this school? What are the elements of the MIT experience that seem to turn highly-sought after young thinkers into “irrational actors"? Is it the intense academic load or something more? What is the progression of personal events that is leading individuals to suicide at MIT? Can students self-diagnose themselves as having a problem? Or do they simply think they are broken and a failure? Is there a stigma attached with seeking help for suicidal thoughts? Is serious help socially, physically, mentally accessible? Why are MIT’s thoughtful, dedicated services somehow not an option for some students? What other options can we provide? Does MIT Medical have the resources to cover the needs of suicidal or potentially suicidal students? Calling MIT Medical in a polite way often gets us a meeting in a doctor’s next available slot, which is often close to two weeks into the future. For obvious reasons, this is not good enough, and can easily be viewed as a rejection of a call for help.
In addition, MIT should:
Hire more seasoned professional experts to work at Mental Health. When students call, ask the students how they are doing, and directly confront them with the option of being seen immediately. Give the administration the responsibility of letting students know that other students often have the same difficult thoughts about school and life at MIT, and should foster programs that prevent students from becoming disconnected from one another. Get our alumni to reach out to the students — the supply is manifold. Adopt the very inspirational, and right-on mantra “It gets better” from the GLBTQ community. As echoed by Wong in the Feb. 28 guest column: No one knows pressure like someone who has been through the same system. Report on student stories about depression and suicide at MIT. Personally, I have heard many stories from my own friends about this issue, and know more through my own experiences.
How can we turn this into something productive?
The people of the MIT community are our real endowment, and losing a single member for the frustrating combination of very serious but very fixable reasons should be avoided. It’s a well-known adage that "it takes a village to raise a child," and it is time to put more funding towards making the MIT community village better at raising its children.
Clio Andris PhD ’11 is a postdoc in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.