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Hard questions need hard data: suicide at MIT

There have been more suicides at MIT this academic year than any other in recent memory. This is unacceptable. The MIT community as a whole needs to have a systematic, active, and open discussion about how to combat the issue. Each individual who chose to commit suicide had a life that cannot be summarized by a statistic, but if we study all of these individuals as a group, then we may find important insights.

The first step to understanding the problem is assessing its severity. Typically, this means gathering statistics and data. When I initially wanted to look into the history of suicide at MIT, I went to the Office of Student Life and the MIT Mental Health department. However, neither of these organizations were willing to publish statistics or make any records available to me. This, too, is unacceptable. MIT needs to aggregate and publish this information, not keep it under wraps. We need a transparent approach that involves the community in the effort to make MIT a safer, saner place.

Given the lack of official data, I decided to gather some statistics independently. Using The Tech’s online article archives and a list of undergraduate suicide dates from a paper written by Elaine Chew and Phillip Greenspun, I built a composite record of all suicides at MIT from 1964 to today. This record includes undergrads, grad students, and MIT employees — the whole community. If their suicide was reported in The Tech or included in the paper, it is in the dataset.

This record may be incomplete, but it is the best picture I was able to assemble with publicly available information. Between 1966 and 1975, there was an average of 1 suicide each year. In the past ten years, however, there were an average of 1.4 suicides each year. Even more worrisome, 6 of the 14 suicides in the past ten years occurred in the last 2.5 years — the largest 2.5-year suicide count since the late 1980s. This is a long-term trend that seems to be getting worse.

This upward trend should be clear feedback that we need better strategies for promoting wellbeing. The emotional health of incoming freshmen in colleges across America is at its lowest point in three decades, with students reporting that they’re spending more time studying and less time socializing with friends. Additionally, feelings of isolation and hopelessness are both risk factors for suicide. MIT students are susceptible to both of these, sometimes spending long hours working relentlessly and alone. This problem is clearly more critical in our community than in most.

The MIT administration should be studying the suicide problem, sharing the resulting information, and involving our community in the solution — an approach similar to the one shown in the recent report on sexual assault. Of course, there are important concerns about how this is done. The information should be anonymized and aggregated, protecting the privacy of the victims as much as possible. We need to discuss the topic delicately in order to be sensitive to those who might be triggered. Finally, we need to be actively looking out for individuals who might be at risk of suicide themselves in order to prevent the possibility of contagion.

With all that said, the benefits of having an informed discussion cannot be overlooked. If we can talk now about the most effective strategies to prevent suicide, then we might be able to keep it from happening so often. In order to gauge the effectiveness of our strategies, we need publicly available data to measure them against. As painful as it may be, this is the MIT administration’s chance to lead the way and demonstrate how an informed community tackles a problem that everyone cares about — let’s hope it rises to the challenge.

John O’Sullivan is a member of the Class of 2015.

Divestment-plus: let’s end false dichotomies

In this Tuesday’s MIT Faculty Newsletter, Vice President Maria Zuber “outline[d] the facts” on the fossil fuel divestment debate.

She asks: “Should we accept [Fossil Free MIT’s] call to divest? Should we do something else instead, possibly a proactive response that contributes to reducing the Institute’s carbon footprint?

I wholeheartedly support reducing our carbon footprint. But MIT must forgo false dichotomies and forge a multi-faceted climate action plan. We must ask, “What is everything we can do?” Not, as VP Zuber asks, “What, if anything, do we do?”

Doing everything we can means launching an MIT ‘Manhattan Project’ for renewables research, reinventing climate education, transforming our campus into a zero-carbon living laboratory, and yes, aligning our money with our mission and morals through divestment and reinvestment.

We should therefore divest immediately from firms perpetuating climate science disinformation or focused on scientifically unwarranted coal, tar sands, and Arctic exploration. And we should divest over five years from oil and gas companies. We could then reinvest divested funds in high-yield, low-risk campus energy efficiency. Incidentally, the greenhouse carbon embodied in MIT’s investments dwarfs our campus footprint by tens, even hundreds, of times.

VP Zuber then asks: “Would it be appropriate to call out fossil fuel companies while continuing to use their products and to partner with them on clean energy solutions and fossil fuel studies that mitigate environmental harm?

Yes, because divestment aligns our money with our mission and morals, not those of Big Oil and big donors.

VP Zuber inquires: “What have other universities done regarding fossil fuel divestment? Most that have divested do not have substantial endowments, with the exception of Stanford … None of the Ivies have divested, but Yale communicated to its outside investment managers the importance of accounting for ‘the risks of climate change in investment analysis.’

Other universities’ lack of moral courage should be seen by MIT as an opportunity for leadership, not an excuse to avoid it. As Larry Linden said during the Climate Change Conversation, prospects for political action can “go from impossible to inevitable overnight.” Will MIT feel more comfortable leading against climate change once everyone else goes first?

In fact, universities with major endowments have divested, including Australia’s top-ranking university, Australian National University, and Syracuse University’s $1.2 billion fund. The World Bank and the United Nations endorse divestment, and everyone from Richard Branson, to the Church of England ($13.6 billion), to the colossal $850 billion Norwegian sovereign fund have begun going fossil free.

Divestment by the Rockefellers proves that “our moral duty to divest” can be prudent, conditional, gradual, and yes, sometimes challenging. To VP Zuber and President Reif: This is how legacies are born. Let us toss our cap over this wall before us, so that we have no choice but to follow it.

Geoffrey Supran is a PhD candidate in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering, a leader of the Fossil Free MIT divestment campaign, and the graduate representative on the president’s Climate Change Conversation committee.