Opinion guest column


Questions that need to be addressed to prevent further suicides

(As a preface to this letter, I make no assumptions about accidental or intentional nature of the sad passing of Brian G. Anderson ’13, and stand with the MIT community in sending our thoughts and wishes to his family and friends. Yet, I believe his death, as the most recent loss of a student on campus, brings to light a very concerning issue on campus.)

A number of people have spoken about the recent tragic student losses at MIT. Yet, MIT needs also to realize that for every suicide, there’s a magnitude of students who consider the option daily. Getting to the root of depression and stopping loss of life is not an easy problem but trust me, crazier, more idealistic ideas have been accomplished on this campus.

I believe that depression and suicidal tendencies are complex issues at MIT. MIT students are very independent, self-pushing, and perfection-driven — which is a dangerous combination for depression. In addition, the “do what it takes to get it done” mentality is also dangerous for suicide. Moreover, MIT students are rational in the most mechanical way — if they see themselves as the weakest part of the system, then they will further remove themselves. These feelings manifest themselves as someone loses healthy perspective on life. This “skewed” thinking becomes exacerbated with (and is partly the cause of) an increasing loss of connection to people, yielding fewer rewarding conversations; friendships and feelings of closeness with trusted friends, professors, and family; and creating a system of vicious cycles. Also, as we know, the signs of depression and end-of-life decisions are not always visible to one’s friends and family, especially when the affected friend has “perfectionist” or “overachieving” characteristics. It’s a slippery slope that is often faced alone.

It’s clear that MIT needs to forge (or convolve, if you will) a stronger net to support brilliance at all stages of development — NOT pose a sink-or-swim environment. What we have in place — S3, Mental Health, the together.mit.edu signs that are very encouraging (but only point us in a loop back to S3), etc. — is not working. (S3, as Shin Nee Wong aptly described in “Getting better by leaving the Institute,” on Feb. 28, 2012, is very administrative and often takes three weeks to schedule a meeting.)

MIT needs to create a task force on what is making students depressed, over-anxious, and ready to end their lives. Record what panics or overwhelming thoughts our students are having and address these on the whole. (MIT is great at task force projects; for an example, see MIT’s active role in changing in number of female professors in the past 20 years.)

This task force should tell us:

How many students are on antidepressants or other medication prescribed by psychologists at this school? What are the elements of the MIT experience that seem to turn highly-sought after young thinkers into “irrational actors"? Is it the intense academic load or something more? What is the progression of personal events that is leading individuals to suicide at MIT? Can students self-diagnose themselves as having a problem? Or do they simply think they are broken and a failure? Is there a stigma attached with seeking help for suicidal thoughts? Is serious help socially, physically, mentally accessible? Why are MIT’s thoughtful, dedicated services somehow not an option for some students? What other options can we provide? Does MIT Medical have the resources to cover the needs of suicidal or potentially suicidal students? Calling MIT Medical in a polite way often gets us a meeting in a doctor’s next available slot, which is often close to two weeks into the future. For obvious reasons, this is not good enough, and can easily be viewed as a rejection of a call for help.

In addition, MIT should:

Hire more seasoned professional experts to work at Mental Health. When students call, ask the students how they are doing, and directly confront them with the option of being seen immediately. Give the administration the responsibility of letting students know that other students often have the same difficult thoughts about school and life at MIT, and should foster programs that prevent students from becoming disconnected from one another. Get our alumni to reach out to the students — the supply is manifold. Adopt the very inspirational, and right-on mantra “It gets better” from the GLBTQ community. As echoed by Wong in the Feb. 28 guest column: No one knows pressure like someone who has been through the same system. Report on student stories about depression and suicide at MIT. Personally, I have heard many stories from my own friends about this issue, and know more through my own experiences.

How can we turn this into something productive?

The people of the MIT community are our real endowment, and losing a single member for the frustrating combination of very serious but very fixable reasons should be avoided. It’s a well-known adage that "it takes a village to raise a child," and it is time to put more funding towards making the MIT community village better at raising its children.

Clio Andris PhD ’11 is a postdoc in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

Anonymous about 11 years ago

This is long overdue. Thank you, Clio.

Daisy about 11 years ago

My son's dream was to go to MIT since his freshman year in highschool. He announced it to us very proudly one evening while we were eating dinner. He knew that we couldn't afford to send him there but he was very self-confident when he told us that he is going to make it. He graduated valecdictorian from his highschool 3 yrs ago and was admitted to MIT on scholarship. He thought his dream had come true and enjoyed being there until last year when he became suicidal. He started getting sick and it all seemed to be stress related since he had to be in school fulltime and make good grades to keep his scholarship. We weren't not aware about him being sick to the point of being suicidal until after a couple of months. He started being very brief with me on the phone when I called him and up to the point of avoiding to talk to me. That's when I got the feeling that something wasn't right and my husband and I tried to figure out what was going on with him. My husband finally drove all the way from Florida to MIT one everning to pick him up and bring him home. He has been very depressed, sad, frustrated with his life with the feeling that he has been a failure. He is still recovering from being away from MIT and we hope that one day he will be able to fulfill his dream about graduating from MIT. In the meantime, we feel very blessed that he is still alive and we try our best to provide him with all the love and care that he needs to be healed from his trauma. He is still grieving what he calls "his loss" which is his MIT dream, and now that he is more opened to talk about his experience overthere, I think that's helping him to understand that he isn't the only student who has gone through such a difficult time at MIT. While he was there, he told us that there was one suicide and after he came back home, there has been 2 more,not counting the one who just passed away last month. I keep all these students' families in my prayers and I just can't imagine what they must be going through. I dearly hope that no other young person loses his/her life and get the support and help that he/she needs as soon as possible. As a parent, it's hard to see your child's dream fall apart but it's much harder and unbearable when a young life is lost.