MIT is stressful, but students need to be more self-reliant

While the series of student suicides at MIT and other colleges in the Boston area is not the focus of this piece, it has inspired my reflection on how to cope in difficult times at the Institute. These events have prompted me to stretch my search for solutions to perhaps controversial lengths. In any case, I wish to express my condolences to these students’ families and loved ones.

Echoes of these tragic events have caused me to question our “community phenomenon,” one that is consistently promoted not only at the Institute, but throughout the world.

Indeed, following such events, MIT and similarly affected colleges have quite logically launched into heartfelt introspection and debates. Typically, this desperate search for answers has been accompanied by an ever more strident call to “reach out” to those “appearing distressed,” and to “seek help” from Student Support Services (S3, MIT mental health services, or anyone else).

In the same vein, another common response has been to provide more information about the above-mentioned resources. The recently launched website “MIT Together” does just that, while encouraging students to seek support. Both student associations and the administration have identified a lingering stigma associated with asking for help. Thus, given the demand, those well-meaning efforts not only make sense, they are even a moral imperative.

However, we may need to question this pre-determined notion that there is strength in numbers, and to consider — for a change — a more individualistic approach than what has been so far presented as the sole solution by MIT’s staff and students. The “community” approach has not worked for everyone.

There seems to be a growing urge for students and anyone feeling under pressure at MIT to rely on external sources of strength and practical help. We may want to ask ourselves whether this is actually increasing our inner strength and resourcefulness, or diminishing them.

MIT’s S3, I am sure, is staffed by people who are very competent in their respective fields, and seems very comprehensive. Furthermore, one may be surrounded by trusted and well-meaning friends or blessed by a supportive family, both groups ready to lend an ear or hand in times of trouble. But the bottom line is that no one is going to brush your teeth for you. Just like all those momentous moments in life — birth, death, your wedding vows, college exams, and job interviews — no one can replace you and do the actual job for you. If one approaches MIT and problem solving this way, it goes a long way towards making one more resilient and less prone to having expectations and frustrations about help that doesn’t come or is inadequate.

We must take it upon ourselves to expect and prepare for the stress, loneliness, sleepless nights and other bumps on the road, and we will be much better at handling them when they occur.

But more practically speaking, there also seem to be some holes in the “share your pain and seek help” strategy.

The “talk to a trusted friend” tip has been promoted so much by the entire counseling industry that it has nearly acquired mystical status; it “appears” in every book or blog on the subject of coping — even those advising people who report being lonely. Yet, even the most well-meaning and dependable people in your life may not be around precisely at the time you need them.

But the question is, does talking always lead to appropriate action? Why not save precious time spent trying to locate possible sources of help and start the introspective thinking and problem-solving on your own? If this actually takes longer — how can sharpening your thinking skills be a bad thing?

I also suspect that talking and sharing may make you temporarily feel better, but what does it achieve concretely? Whatever step you need to take to solve the problem, talking about it will have achieved little in that direction. And the “feel-good” effect will quickly wear off if all this talk is not backed up by action on your part. In other words, talk therapy, whether in a professional or informal “with a friend” setting, is often a short-term, superficial solution.

There often are several perspectives and solutions to a problem. Thus, the common theory goes, the benefit of seeking outside opinions is obvious. And yet, there also is often a limited number of solutions to any problem. Sure, there can be many of them, and some may creatively spring off in unexpected directions from conversations with others. But if one listens to or reads everything that has been said or written about most common problems by experts, self-help gurus, college counselors, practicing psychologists, and agony aunts, one finds that at some point the things being said start to repeat themselves. In other words, there are schools of thought on most of these common problems, and once you have grasped their recommendations through a couple of books, visits to counselors, or conversations with friends, most of what you will hear and read beyond that will be just repeats. Basically, if I were to go and see a counselor for my next problem, I would tell him/her “Please tell me something I haven’t already heard.”

I wonder what has happened to self-reliance and trust in one’s personal coping abilities in a world that cannot get enough sharing and connecting.

Wouldn’t a little self-reliance and quiet introspection go a long way towards helping us understand the roots of our problems, find ways to solve them, and avoid problems in the future? Each person and problem and its surrounding context is not unique, but we are also the ones living with these problems, day in day out, who know all our history of ups and downs. In other words, given our first-hand experience, the “expert” in our specific problems is ourselves — not others with diplomas.

It is very hard to practice this meticulous self-check. It is difficult to achieve this kind of heightened awareness — being attuned to our emotions and intimately knowing our coping responses — if we are busy listening to the din outside with constant expectations of external help. Yet, the ability to perform this “solo monitoring” is key to success in life and career.

While I believe that developing solo problem-solving skills and a self-reliant approach works well, I also believe in the virtue of balance. More or less equal doses of self-reliance and smartly selected sources of support can be a winning combination.

However, I sense that there is an exaggerated focus on “the community,” with implicit, but growing obligations to share and collaborate on personal issues and what used to lie squarely in the realm of the private. This in turn builds up our expectations for “the community” to “always be there for us” and respond appropriately.

An equal, reciprocal partnership is certainly to be praised. But the current emphasis on looking to others instead of introspectively, and relying on external factors instead of first actively seeking to solve problems ourselves creates an imbalance between the yin and yang of survival strategies. The risk of such a community-centered society is that individual needs and preferences may get brushed under the carpet for the common good.

The Institute’s administration and professional support services have already demonstrated that they can do a wonderful job of taking care of the MIT community. Perhaps what is missing, given the current debate, is making sure that everyone is thriving. A healthy and effective community starts with the individual. Nurture the latter, then think of the group.

Anonymous over 5 years ago

It's dangerous to undercut the value of interpersonal or professional help (especially professional help--often the breadth of experiences of you and your peers just doesn't cover everything). Many people either deal with issues that are far beyond their immediate control or don't know where to start, and external and professional help is really good at working on that. No one needs to go through life alone, and people should never discourage that option.

Though I do think there is a key element of truth to change needing to happen from within the individual as well. Just as you don't easily get over many physical diseases by just seeing the doctor, but by also actually taking medication, you can't just seek help without doing your part to take that help to heart and work on things yourself.

The individual needs to want to move forward/make a plan for themself and stick to it, but the subtext here that doing so alone is even just usually sufficient really scares me. Working on the individual is very important, but it doesn't need to be a lonely venture.

Anonymous over 5 years ago

It's important to hear other peoples' perspectives if you don't know how to solve your own problems. Talking to others is oftentimes a crucial first step in dealing with emotional distress.

Anonymous over 5 years ago

It sounds like the author has never actually dealt with depression or anxiety problems, nor does she have personal experience seeking help.

Good therapy isn't a "quick fix" that wears off. The point isn't that you talk and then you magically feel better. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can give an individual tools to tackle their problems in a proactive way.

The issue at MIT is NOT that people don't try hard enough to find self-motivated solutions to their problems. One of the biggest issues here is that students feel so compelled to figure out their problems themselves that they push away outside help. I don't know of any MIT student who has turned to outside help before (extensive) attempts to solve their problems themselves.

Building a sense of community helps de-stigmatize mental health struggles. Stigma is a huge barrier to seeking help, and this article perpetuates it by implying that people who seek help early are avoiding taking personal responsibility for solving their own problems.