The tragedies at MIT in recent months gave a new sense of urgency to the discussion about mental health support for all members of the community. A crucial part of undergraduate student life at MIT is the dorm experience and the unique and diverse residential communities we pride ourselves on encouraging. In 2012, the Division of Student Life (DSL) introduced the Residential Life Area Director (RLAD) position to the existing dorm structures on campus.
Following the first hires in August 2012, some dormitories have had positive results with the integration of RLADs. Yet others, such as East Campus and Senior House, have had less success. In these dorms, an air of skepticism and suspicion surrounds the position, and both are currently conducting searches for new RLADs. In light of the recent events at MIT, the timing is right for focusing the role on addressing the mental well-being of students on a day-to-day basis. We could use trained professionals who can address the stigma that still surrounds mental health issues and care for hard-to-reach students who are affected but hesitant to seek health resources.
The stress load associated with a top-caliber institution such as MIT affects the entire community. Impostor syndrome is ubiquitous. Facing the possibility that I would be forced to leave MIT without my doctorate, I had a hard time convincing myself that it would be a useful and necessary endeavor to visit MIT Mental Health. But doing so gave me the chance to discuss and improve myself in that very stressful time of my life. For at-risk students, the time delay between symptoms and treatment can sometimes mean life or death. Often recognizing the need for mental health treatment in the first place is half of the battle. Identifying and understanding the issues of specific students is highly contextual, requiring personal trust and knowledge. A properly trained RLAD would be uniquely positioned to provide student support at critical times.
There is no doubt that the MIT mental health programs are effective for students, with half of all students using these services at least once during their time at MIT. Student Support Services, MIT Mental Health, and outreach programs like Peer Ears provide outlets and communication pathways for dealing with stress and mental issues. However, many students have an abject fear of unnecessary withdrawal or involuntary commitment as a direct consequence of their mental health treatment. The RLAD position can provide a welcoming and constant presence that dispels the stigma and misconceptions about mental health care. Moreover, a mental-health focused RLAD can encourage students to use these services and make the aid process as transparent and accessible as possible.
The difficulty in recognizing isolated at-risk students is twofold: a mental care provider needs to be able to socially engage and earn the trust of the student while understanding and empathizing with the student and their unique problems. GRTs and housemasters are MIT employees with multiple jobs, and one of the ways RLADs can improve the dorm system is to give their communities the undivided attention that cannot come from graduate students and professors. Accessible around the clock, an RLAD focused on community integration and social development can provide prompt and sustained help when it’s needed. The students who have not developed or cannot develop the necessary personal support systems to feel valued and connected to the MIT community stand to gain the most from this resource.
The counter-cultural mindset and insular nature of dorms and halls like my own (East Campus) have made the integration of an RLAD into the community extraordinarily difficult. The perceived focus of the RLAD position on rule enforcement has made it untenable, and until now students have largely avoided interaction on a voluntary basis. However, this gap must be bridged for the sake of student health, and the current search is an opportunity to redefine the position’s relationship with the community for the better.
In order to best address and meet the requirements of the unique social groups at hand, I ask that DSL take time to identify the candidates who can effectively work with these living communities, integrate, and provide better care for the students at risk. I applaud the foresight of DSL in tackling the issues of mental health head-on and I suggest using the RLAD position in continuing efforts in this area. The right personality is vital to becoming a trusted member of the dorm community, and the right qualifications and experience are vital to providing students the support they lack. Only through trust and experience can an RLAD be an effective and consistent tool for students.
I invite Dean Humphreys, Dean Colombo, and DSL to respond and reaffirm the importance of the mental health of our student population. As an East Campus GRT, I ask for an RLAD candidate with the mental health experience to best serve our students in this capacity. Let’s actively promote good mental health and continue what DSL started in our efforts to strengthen our campus community.
Ian Faust is a GRT of East Campus and a PhD candidate in the department of Nuclear Science and Engineering.