More MIT Students Are Using Mental Health Services

One in six students used MIT’s Mental Health Services in the 2006–2007 school year, a rate that has increased by about fifty percent in seven years, according to data provided to The Tech by Chief of Mental Health Services at MIT Alan E. Siegel.

During the 2006–2007 school year, at least 1,639 of MIT’s approximately 10,000 students used MHS services, an increase from the 1,098 students in 2000, as reported by the MIT Mental Health Task Force. People who take part in support groups or one-time consultations are not formally enrolled in MHS’s system and are not counted.

More detailed information on users of MHS is not available, Siegel said, because mental health services are free for all MIT community members, so they don’t have insurance records that others could use to track patients.

Though graduate students outnumber undergraduates by about three to two, Siegel said only slightly more graduate students than undergraduates used MHS services in 2007. The service recorded 11,273 total visits, with a median of seven visits per person.

Other community members also used the services: 1,041 faculty and staff visited in 2006–2007, with a total of 3,959 visits and a median duration of four visits.

MHS usage not unusual among peers

MIT students used mental health services at about twice the average rate for college students nationwide. Last year, 16.4 percent of MIT students sought counselling, compared with 8.5 percent of all enrolled college students in the nation, according to the 2007 National Survey of Counseling Center Directors.

But the rate at MIT is on par with the 14–16 percent at schools traditionally considered “peers,” like Harvard University and Cornell University.

The Mental Health Task Force predicted that changes to mental health services in the past few years would increase usage; in its 2001 report, it wrote that “university mental health directors predict student utilization will continue to rise to a level of 16-20%.”

Severe psychological problems characterized 49 percent of students who sought help at college counseling centers, according to the 2007 National Survey. It is unclear how MIT students compare; MIT doesn’t categorize students this way, Siegel said.

Among students and faculty who visit MHS, the top three concerns are depression, relationship problems, and stress or anxiety, Siegel said. These concerns have remained constant over time.

Intake services improved

Why are more people using MIT’s mental health services these days?

Perhaps this generation is more likely to experience mental health issues — or more willing to ask for help. Another possibility is that in recent years, on-campus mental health services have become substantially easier to use.

Prior to 2000, students who wanted to use MIT’s mental health services would call and set up an appointment, which could be scheduled a week later.

Now, students start right away with a brief phone conversation, about fifteen minutes long, with a mental health clinician. The clinician tries to understand the general problem the person is facing and asks questions to figure out what services would best help the student. If the student cannot find a comfortable place to talk on the phone, these brief appointments can also be done in person.

Those who prefer to visit in person can also come to MHS’s walk-in hours, from 2–4 p.m. on weekdays. During the 2006–2007 school year, 769 people made use of the walk-in services: 341 undergraduates, 240 graduate students, and 188 employees or dependents.

Of those walk-in visitors, 75 percent were self-referrals, meaning they chose to come to MHS on their own. The rest were referred by deans at Student Support Services, other staff at MIT Medical, and other clinicians at MHS.

Generally, more people use the walk-in hours near the end of the term, as final projects and exams approach, Siegel said.

Since 2001, Mental Health Services has also provided evening hours on weekdays for students seeking help. Additional full-time psychiatrists, social workers, and student specialists have been added over the past five years to accommodate a greater volume of people.

While the number of students using MHS has increased, some students have expressed concern about going in to Medical. “I think it’s kind of intimidating. When you see someone on the third floor [of MIT Medical] you know what they’re there for,” said Sally E. Peach ’09.

But she added, “It has a lot of unnecessary stigma there’s the stereotype that people who go there get shipped off to McLean [Hospital], but from the statistics that’s rare.”

There has been some concern that students who needed mental help are not seeking it for fear they will be hospitalized. However, Siegel reassures students that hospitalizations from Mental Health Services are rare — in recent years, only about 10 per year — and when they do occur, they tend to be because of physical symptoms rather than suicidal thoughts. In 2000, 27 people were hospitalized; in 1995, 16 were hospitalized, according to the 2001 MIT Mental Health Task Force report.

“We hospitalize fewer students than most schools our size,” Siegel added.

Who works at MHS?

Although most MHS clinicians are not MIT alumni, they have worked to become familiar with the Institute’s culture.

Staff members regularly meet with student groups around campus, including the Student Health Advisory Council, MedLinks, and Nightline. Sometimes they talk with groups that are not medically related, such as the Chinese Students Association, Siegel said.

“Random Hall invited me to dinner,” recalled Siegel. “Talking with students in residence halls is interesting.”

Frequently, the staff also meets in small teams to share information about different aspects of life at MIT that could help them treat students.

Some students leave for medical reasons

Problems with physical or mental health can cause a student to leave MIT, a situation called a medical withdrawal.

MHS does not handle medical withdrawals. Instead, students who need academic counseling consult Student Support Services, whose office is in 5-104. The support deans at S^3 are meant to help students when personal issues affect their academic performance. There are “roughly 40–60 students coming and going” each semester because of medical withdrawals, though S^3 keeps the official data, Siegel said.

While MHS does not control a student’s academic situation at MIT, S^3 will frequently work with MHS.

According to Siegel, when a student talks to S^3 about leaving MIT, S^3 contacts MHS to see if they had contact with the student. S^3 then develops a plan for the student’s withdrawal, including details about whether the student will get medical treatment outside of MIT or take classes while he or she is away.

A student who has left for medical reasons must apply to return to MIT. The return application is submitted to S^3 and includes a personal statement, a letter of support from the student’s advisor, along with any other relevant documents. A reapplication after a medical withdrawal must include a letter from a doctor or mental health professional.

In the case of a student whose medical withdrawal was motivated by mental health concerns, S^3 will contact MHS for an evaluation.

The Mental Health Service then provides information about the student’s psychological progress to help S^3 determine whether or not to re-admit the student, Siegel said. The final readmittance decision is made by S^3. MHS does provide support groups centered around issues students face when reentering the Institute that readmitted students can attend.

Students who are asked to withdraw because of academic reasons may also involve Mental Health Services in the readmittance process. Kai von Fintel, chair of the Committee on Academic Performance, wrote in an e-mail: “The first readmission is done by S^3 without the CAP’s involvement. Any subsequent readmission comes before the CAP. If the medical department is concerned that a student is not ready for the stresses that studying at MIT brings with it, this would play a role in the readmission decision.”

Involving MHS can also be of benefit to students. As Jessica T. McKellar ’09, a student member of the CAP, describes: “I think many people don’t realize how much better their case is if they’ve reached out to some of the support infrastructure MIT offers. This includes your advisor, S^3, Medical, and various academic resources. When you can have people vouching for you and the efforts you’ve made it during these CAP meetings it makes a big difference.”

MHS is also consulted in cases where the Committee on Discipline thinks a disciplinary infraction warrants mental health assessment. A MHS assessment may be considered when the COD decides whether to discipline a student, Siegel said.

But, Siegel said, they “don’t want to use Mental Health to enforce policy.”

If a student refuses to see clinicians at MHS, MHS cannot mandate treatment. In those cases, MHS will try to stay in touch with the students and help them try to sort out problems they may be facing.