MIT community reflects on recent deaths, ‘opens doors’

Chancellor, student leaders invite community to discuss mental health and wellbeing with others

CLARIFICATION TO THIS ARTICLE: A previous version of this article implied that the gathering was organized by Cru, when it was in fact organized by students in Cru. Students from several different Christian fellowships participated in the gathering.

This past Monday, students, professors, and administrators came together at noon to reflect on the recent deaths in the MIT community. Following the death of Phoebe Wang ’17, Chancellor Cynthia A. Barnhart PhD ’88 and student leaders called upon the community to take part in a 15-minute reflection on Monday, calling it an “All Doors Open” period.

Members of different Christian fellowships gathered in Memorial Lobby at noon to show their support. While holding up signs that read “You Are Loved,” they lined the Infinite Corridor as students walked by.

Cru member Tiandra Ray ’15 helped coordinate the gathering. After learning of Wang’s death, she along with a few others decided to organize a semester-long initiative called “Love Out Loud” that aims to openly promote love at MIT. “MIT is our home, and our hearts break at how frequently we encounter the presence of suicide and depression here,” said Ray.

Ray, who was pleased with the response to the gathering, said, “Although the initiators were a part of Cru, this was very much an ‘all hands on deck’ operation… Not everyone at MIT saw our signs, but those who did were touched.”

In the 2.008 Design and Manufacturing II class, professors John Hart PhD ’06 and David Hardt PhD ’79 paused at noon to allow for a discussion in the class.

Martin C. Feldmann, a teaching assistant for 2.008, explained how students were initially hesitant to talk. By sharing his own thoughts on the matter, though, Feldmann said he was able to start a dialogue between students and the teachers.

“MIT has a lot of things that I love about the culture, but one thing I don’t love is that people here are often afraid of admitting that they don’t know something,” said Feldmann in an interview with The Tech. As such, he said, they are less likely to acknowledge that they are “overwhelmed with a task or with workload in general.”

MIT’s Mental Health and Counseling Services is trying to change that dynamic. Alan Siegel, Chief of MIT Mental Health, considers Monday’s reflection period as the “first step to introduce into the academic side of things the personal, emotional, and interpersonal side of student life.”

Siegel noted that they have already begun making changes. This year, MIT Mental Health reached out to more incoming students to help familiarize them with their resources, using responses from the Student Health Form to determine which students to contact.

Siegel also spoke with new department chairs and faculty about their role as leaders in the MIT community. “We are doing much more talking with and training of faculty and staff of how to recognize when a student is in distress and what to do with it,” said Siegel.

MIT Mental Health hopes to develop a better sense of “what [mental health] resources would be helpful rather than assume [they] know what is needed,” according to Siegel. In talks with Chancellor Barnhart, MIT Mental Health has started to consider adding new resources, such as introducing the presence of counselors in residence halls and holding workshops around stress management for students on campus during the summer. Many of the ideas stem directly from students’ suggestions, he said.

In the past week, MIT Mental Health has seen an outpouring of members of the community reaching out. “Anyone who has been on call [for MIT Mental Health] hasn’t had sleep. We’ve been up all night,” said Siegel.

Feldmann believes that MIT still has a lot of room for improvement. “I do not hear a lot coming from MIT staff,” he said. “If MIT has such a huge problem, it would be a good thing to admit that.”

Feldmann and others wish that the school would release more details regarding the recent deaths. “I think it’s important to hear some facts from the administrative side,” said Feldmann. Since March, four graduate students and one professor have passed away, three of which were deemed suicides. The cause of death, however, was not included in any of the emails sent out by President L. Rafael Reif.

The cause of death of Wang is still unknown.

Ultimately, though, Feldmann believes these problems can be resolved. “MIT is [the] place that I feel most at home except for my real home,” he said.

Students looking to share their insights on stress and mental health at MIT are encouraged to email The comments will be reviewed by Chancellor Barnhart and Chair of the Faculty Steven Hall.