MIT Medical Works to Identify, Address Causes of Suicide

It’s a question that lurks in the minds of many admitted students (and their parents): Is MIT safe for me?

More specifically, are MIT students more likely than others their age to commit suicide? The answer appears to be no. The Institute takes strong and active measures to protect its students’ mental — and physical — health.

Suicide on campus remains one of the most salient mental health issues, both among students and in the public sphere. The issue came to national prominence after the deaths of Elizabeth H. Shin ’02, a sophomore who died after setting herself on fire in her dormitory in April 2000, and Julia M. Carpenter ’03, who died after ingesting cyanide in April 2001. But speaking statistically, MIT remains below the national average when it comes to the number of suicides for college-age students, according to Chief of Mental Health Services at MIT Medical Alan E. Siegel.

The suicide rate for college-aged Americans is difficult to pinpoint, Siegel said, but the statistic most familiar to him puts the rate at 12 suicides per 100,000 people aged 17–25.

In comparison, MIT, said Siegel, has averaged 11.6 suicides per 100,000 persons since 1964 and 10 suicides per 100,000 persons since he arrived in 2002. “The perception that we have more suicides than average is simply not true,” said Siegel.

But other research has shown that college students are much less likely than others in their age group to commit suicide, making MIT’s number disturbingly high. In 2006, University of Rochester associate professor Allen J. Schwartz wrote in the Journal of American College Health that: “Suggestions that there is a growing epidemic of suicide among college students in the United States are false. The National Survey of Counseling Center Directors reports 1,404 student suicides over a 14-year period and an adjusted suicide rate of 6.5 [per 100,000], half the rate of the general U.S. population (12.6 [per 100,000] for all races) during this period when matched for gender and age.”

These figures should not be surprising, according the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Men and students pursuing degrees in science and business tend to exhibit a higher suicide rate, according to the foundation’s Web site.

MIT acts, while some students show little concern

The academic and social rigors associated with life at a high-pressure university make suicide a lingering problem nationwide. Between 10 and 20 percent of college students in the United States have considered committing suicide, and 1 percent of those people end up attempting it, Siegel said.

Alarmed by these statistics, the Mental Health Services department at MIT takes a preventive approach. By counseling students, the theory goes, MIT will not only make them happier; it will also keep them from ever approaching a point where they think suicide is the only source of relief.

“Suicide is just one way for people to express dismay,” said Siegel. “We need to identify and address the causes of suicides.”

In 1999, MIT then-President Charles M. Vest established a Mental Health Task Force to revamp MIT’s mental health programs. The task force was not meant to target suicide in particular — rather, it aimed to discover how Mental Health Services could improve the overall well-being of students and meet their needs.

Today, students who spoke to The Tech did not seem too concerned about suicides on campus. Vyom Sharma G said he has never heard of a suicide since his arrival at MIT four years ago. (At least four members of the MIT community have killed themselves since 2004.)

Diana Wang ’08 said that despite the media coverage that surrounds incidents of suicide at MIT, the issue is not particularly worrisome.

Both Abdulaziz M. Albahar ’10 and Brianne M. Holmbeck ’08 said they felt MIT Medical adequately addressed the issue of suicide.

Grad student culture is different

Because graduate students may be more isolated from campus life than undergraduates, Mental Health Services once asked graduate students to take an online survey based on one developed at Emory University. Students whose surveys indicated high levels of depression were invited to visit the department or contact a doctor via e-mail. About 2 percent of students, most of whom had never visited Mental Health Services, received such requests, and most ultimately made contact with the department, Siegel said.

Mental health screening surveys have occasionally been administered to graduate students since then. Some graduate students were invited this spring to take a similar survey, in an e-mail sent by Chancellor Phillip L. Clay PhD ’75.

In the surveys, students reported that accessibility and approachability were the weakest areas of the Mental Health Services department.

Siegel seems to understand these concerns; he said a rapid response is vital to addressing the needs of students who are suicidal, experiencing depression, or otherwise in need of assistance. Recent developments that exemplify these concerns include walk-in hours, added in September 2000; evening hours and weekend staffing, added later; and a phone screening system, added in April 2002.

Mental Health Services also enhanced its training of leaders in the MIT community. Graduate Residence Tutors, faculty, administrators, and other prominent members of the community were trained using a suicide prevention program that has been tested at six universities, including MIT.

The pilot program, first developed for the United States Air Force, teaches community members how to recognize people who are depressed or at risk of suicide and how to help them.

MHS encourages community members to attend workshops that, like all their services, are free and open to the community. Those workshops help people deal with issues like returning from a medical withdrawal, completing their theses, or overcoming procrastination.