Finding perspective in MIT’s culture of stress

An interview with the chief of MIT Medical Mental Health services — Alan Siegel

5462 siegel
Alan E. Siegel EdD, Chief of Mental Health Services
Tiffany Ira Huang—The Tech

The Tech sat down with Alan Siegel, chief of MIT Mental Health Service, to talk about the stress on students and the “culture of suffering” that Siegel suggested exists among students at MIT.

MIT-specific stress

In addition to the usual stress found among all college students in adapting to a new environment, there are also many factors that make MIT pressures unique. Stress at MIT, said Siegel, often takes the form of “discomfort, pain, confusion, or anxiety about failing, or not doing all you’re supposed to, or not knowing how to do what you’re supposed to, and feeling helpless in those situations.”

He attributes much of this stress to the difficulty and complexity of the work done at MIT. In discussions with people in similar positions to his at other schools, he finds that work elsewhere seems to be not as relentless or continuous as it is at MIT, nor the pressure as high. Students agree: survey responses to how hard students think they work at MIT indicated that undergrads see themselves at an average of 4.8 on a 7-point scale, while they see other MIT students at 5.3.

Siegel emphasized that this stress due to workload and academics is not an invented or imaginary one, but very real.

The Institute itself contributes to this stress, Siegel said. He is often uncomfortable with the simultaneity of work assigned students, which can often pile on specific days or weeks. Mental Health often talks to faculty and departments about the challenges many students face to spread awareness about the student experience, but Siegel said that faculty are still often very hard on students.

“I think that some of them tend to see themselves in their students, which is good in a way but sometimes difficult because their own self-expectations get layered in,” said Siegel. He added that faculty are open to figuring out other ways to maintain a rigorous academic environment without creating a “relentless pressure cooker.”

A “culture of suffering”

One aspect of MIT that differentiates it from some other top schools is that there is often no direct student competition: there is no class rank or valedictorian, and students often work collaboratively on p-sets and projects. Siegel says this can provide comfort in sharing the burden of hard work and unite students “against a common enemy.”

This is a likely source of popularity for IHTFP — students see the Institute as a common enemy to band together against, but also as an enemy that people sometimes love. But it is this very unity under stress that creates this “culture of suffering, this culture of strenuous activity and some sense that, ‘If you’re overwhelmed, then I’m more overwhelmed than you are,’” said Siegel.

Survey results said that 30 percent of undergraduates play the “I’m so hosed” game of who’s more overwhelmed on a weekly basis, while another 16 percent do it monthly.

“It doesn’t seem necessarily like it makes sense unless you’re in the environment,” Siegel said, “and then it makes a lot of sense because everybody is confronted with a situation that seems just a tad more intense or demanding then they can manage.”

Though pushing back assignments can be helpful, students are often resistant.“‘Well, am I slacking off?’” Siegel says students will think. The culture is that “if you’re not overwhelmed and keeping up with a pace that you don’t have much control over, then you’re a slacker.”

This attitude permeates the MIT student experience , but Siegel said that students should view it as only one part of the MIT culture that brings students together and not the entire experience itself. “If you believe in it absolutely as a truth, then it’s a problem,” said Siegel. There are other ways to feel connected, like working on projects, or participating in clubs or sports. “There are other parts of the culture that don’t necessarily make suffering the only thing that’s valued,” he added.

Mental Health

MIT Mental Health Services sees about 20–25 percent of the student body every year, and about 20 percent of those have what Siegel calls “serious problems.” Most visits, surprisingly enough, have to do with more common problems involving roommates, relationships, family, or students’ futures. Siegel says that more and more students have been coming to Mental Health — today’s numbers are up from about 12 percent 10 years ago — but he agreed that there is still a stigma among many students in going to Mental Health.

This stigma, he said, is partly attributed to what he said are myths about involuntary hospitalizations and people otherwise leaving MIT after going to Mental Health; “there’s a feeling that it’s such an extraordinary event to leave school and go to another place that it serves as a deterrent to coming in.”

Talking about suicide “is not what sets off the alarms,” and most hospitalizations are not because of suicidal thoughts; thinking about suicide happens frequently, and people often talk about suicide [check page 11 for more on this topic]. The other part of the stigma, he said, is students having trouble incorporating the idea that they have a problem without it being too disruptive to feeling good and proud about themselves. Mental Health has been combating this stigma by encouraging people like friend and GRTs, to recommend students to Mental Health and support them through the process.

Resources at MIT

MIT students have a lot of choices when it comes to support — Mental Health, S3, GRTs, housemasters, among others. Siegel says that MIT tries to maintain an “informed system” of faculty and staff that can direct students to the right resources. What MIT lacks, though, according to Siegel, is a peer-counseling service that many other schools have. He said that there were efforts to see the old Nightline system as one, but that students weren’t really using it. This void often causes students to seek out support in naturally occurring support groups, like p-set groups and living groups, which Siegel said are good for students because they give the students people to help them through tough times and give them different perspectives on their problems.

Siegel added that MIT is trying to enhance peer support by implementing two new programs, Peer2Peer and Peer Ears [more on these groups on page 15], and that they will see if these programs help students engage with each other. These programs would be an important part of carrying on conversations about mental health, particularly after a year of three student suicides.

Suicides, he says, “derail the community,” and it is helpful to have counselors available to talk to students. Regarding the argument that MIT’s suicide rate is average for an institution of it’s size, Siegel said, “that doesn’t mean anything, because each of those deaths — they were people that mattered to the community, and it’s just horrible.”

But at the end of the day, Siegel said, MIT needs students to tell the administration what is working, what isn’t working, and what could work. He said that students should respond to surveys or reach out to the administration if they have feedback. “Whatever stress it is that people feel, what else could the Institute do to make a difference?”

The new MIT Together Website has aggregated all of the support systems provided by the Institute, and Siegel wonders whether MIT has “too many points of entry” into the support system. However, he thinks that students would ignore the options not meaningful to them.

How can students be happy?

Though Siegel admitted that it was tough to provide a general solution for how students can deal with stress, he suggested that students should try to step back from their situations if possible and try to view them from many different angles, as they would do in a problem set.

“The problem is, when you feel stressed and you’re upset, you tend to look at stuff from one direction, and that’s very difficult because you can’t come up with the kind of answers and perspectives that could really put it in context.” Siegel emphasized that students should try not to be isolated. According to The Tech’s survey, one in four students feel isolated, with another 18 percent were unsure. Siegel suggests that students take a walk or grab lunch with somebody; just being in the company of someone else can help you understand your situation better or perhaps offer a broader perspective on an issue.

Overall, Siegel emphasized that it is important to realize that the situations students face are often temporary, and that it is important to talk with friends and other people who can provide different perspectives or an understanding of certain situations.

Siegel said that students shouldn’t get bogged down in only seeing one path to success, or lose track of personal qualities and other capacities that they can use to make a difference.

“I think sometimes when you feel bad as a student you forget that you’re terrific.”

Harold A. Maio over 11 years ago

but he agreed that there is still a stigma among many students in going to Mental Health.

I take strong objection to you use of the term stigma. When a university passes that term along to students, and readers of this interview, they repeat it using you as a reference. A perfect example is editors presenting it uncritically. There is no way the editor of this paper would consent to directing at that term at rape at MIT, nor should shje direct that term at all. It is most curious that a university would.

If there is a reluctance of many students,there is a serious problem at MIT. That this statement issues from the chief of MIT Mental Health Service makes the statement that much more inexcusable. So long as anyone at MIT teaches or allows the teaching of a stigma, MIT is failing its students.

Harold A. Maio, retired Mental Health Editor

M Coco, LICSW over 11 years ago

Dr Siegel named a reality common to most college campuses - some students associate mental health struggles with stigma. I appreciated the ways which he proceded to offer explanation and alternative perspectives. It is very clear to me that he is working to narmalize the issues faced by students, clarify misconceptions about what happens when a student uses mental health services, and offer non pathologizing support. As a mental health provider, Dr, Siegel is demonstrating integrity in speaking to a truth and fulfilling his responsibility to educate the community about mental health. MIT is very fortunate to have such a wise and gentle man as Chief of Mental Health.