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Invisible efforts to reduce suicides

Before coming to MIT as a postdoc in 2013, news of student suicides hadn’t affected me as they do now. I went to large schools: UMass-Amherst for undergrad and The University of Texas at Austin for my PhD. I only recall hearing news of a suicide about once a year, but the rate here feels painfully higher. Following last week’s report of an MIT graduate student’s death, I felt compelled to get involved and began to search for organized efforts within the MIT community. I have to say, what I found (or, rather, what I did not find) shocked me. Despite several articles in which MIT acknowledged the problem of suicides and appeared to commit to addressing the issue, even citing resources, nowhere could I find a salient lifeline for students in crisis at MIT.

First, I looked at the Student Support Services webpage and was met with the following cavalier message:

Being a student at MIT can sometimes feel like drinking from a fire hose and Student Support Services is here to help you manage the water pressure. We are a friendly and easily accessible hub of support for MIT students. Whether you are struggling with a pset because of something going on in your life, you feel too ill to take an exam, you are considering taking time away from the Institute, or you just don’t know who to talk to, we can help.

Absent entirely was any sort of prompt containing words such as crisis, or safety, or the phone number for the national suicide prevention lifeline. There is a number for “mental health and counseling” listed along with five others under the heading “for urgent concerns or after hours.” Yet one of the first principles taught in suicide prevention training is the importance of being non-judgmental. Hence, directing a person to call a number for mental health counseling may not be the most effective in-the-moment strategy when that person is suicidal.

I also looked up the Active Minds group at MIT. Google pointed me first to its Facebook page, where the link next to “website” led me to a “404 error: not-found” message (though one of the links on their “about us” page worked). At the bottom right corner of the page, not visible on my laptop without scrolling down, was diminutive blue text on a blue background, reading “In crisis? Call …” along with a number. Well, at least that’s more than the S3 page provided, but why isn’t it at the top of the page in big, bold text? Furthermore, I couldn’t find any useful information about how to join the MIT team, as the website only allows you to search by name, and inputting ‘MIT’ didn’t return any results. Perhaps the Facebook page is the official page? And if so, where is information about joining the efforts or getting help? Of course, I can intuit that if I “like” the page, I will see posts about upcoming events in my newsfeed. But what about members of the MIT community whose social lives or scheduling practices don’t overlap significantly with Facebook?

MIT is extending its efforts and programs, but the visibility remains problematic. Only after speaking about this topic with staff at The Tech did I learn about the support resource together.mit.edu. One recently added program, “Let’s Chat,” is also extremely limited in terms of accessibility, only available for a few hours during business days.

This can’t be the front line of MIT’s efforts to engage the community and reduce student suicides, can it? I do believe that MIT is deeply concerned by these deaths. Yet I write this letter to point out that the Institute’s efforts and resources do not appear highly visible to those who are interested in addressing this issue, and more importantly, to those who need them.

Emily Carino is a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Chemical Engineering.