Supporting our students

A student’s question at the Memorial Lobby event Tuesday evening haunts me: “What will you do so that we don’t forget?” She was referring to the life of Matt Nehring and to the impact of suicide on classmates.

I told her that I commit to advancing a respectful and caring community, to be a student advocate on mental health issues, and to help students in distress. Another student looked skeptical, saying that professors expect life to go on as if nothing has changed. Most of the students I spoke with said that none of their professors took time out of their classes to acknowledge the loss, to share in the grieving, and to be human. Some did.

During the last year, hundreds of MIT students have told me that they desire more interaction with faculty members outside of their academic role and to be validated as persons and not merely learners. If you are a faculty member who felt too uncomfortable to interrupt your class this week to talk about suicide, please contact me. I’d be glad to meet for coffee, to learn your story, and to help you explore ways of showing students that you care.

MIT students sometimes fear they will not live up to faculty expectations unless they excel even among their peers, all of whom are outstanding. This fear can lead to an unhealthy spiral whereby students see their peers doing amazing things, which causes some to doubt their own competence and belonging, so they stretch their limits to excel, in the process achieving amazing things, which causes others to doubt their own competence, creating a vicious cycle.

Theodore Roosevelt said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” There has been talk about hacking the MIT culture. We don’t need to invent a new technology for this; we can simply return to basics.

Do faculty know how much students can treasure a kind word and affirmation, or how many students doubt they belong at MIT? If you do, and would be willing to join me in meeting with students as a friendly advocate, and to get to know students outside the classroom, to help unwind the spiral of stress and despair, please contact me and together we will show that we do not forget the loss of Matt Nehring, Phoebe Wang, Austin Travis, Seth Teller, or Hadi Kasab.

Edmund Bertschinger is a professor of physics and the Institute Community and Equity Officer.

anonymous about 3 years ago

I think MIT needs more informal routes of advising. Right now, as a far as I can tell, if you feel stressed at MIT you either have to make an appointment at mental health or S3, but there are no good less intimidating alternatives. Perhaps our academic advisors should also serve more personal advising roles, instead of just signing our registration forms. Or perhaps senior-freshman mentor-mentee opportunities (or requirements?) could be put into place. That way freshman, or even sophomores, that are trying to cope and transition could discuss problems with students who have been in their shoes before.

Freedom about 3 years ago

1-- I sort of like your thinking. I think the best thing to do would be a student group that encourages lonely people to have lunch/dinner with each other. Eating a meal with a lonely person is great charity.

rtuot about 3 years ago

I like the idea that Dr. Bertschinger's letter is an invitation to his colleagues. Maybe a solution is for each staff member to simply become less distant and more accessible on a personal level to college students. In the distant past there were typically closer relationships between college students and faculty in universities across the country. Those relationships are far more formal now. Maybe if faculty were more personable in their day to day interactions, they would get a better sense for their students. Students might feel more connected.

anon about 3 years ago

no, encouraging faculty members to be more accessible is not going to work. Realize that the people who are suicidal are probably the ones who are the LEAST likely to reach out to those around them. Also, the fact of the matter is that professors are not mental health experts and most simply have no idea how to comfort someone in such a mental state.

The people participating in these community gatherings/social events are the ones who aren't at serious risk anyway.

Ed Bertschinger about 3 years ago

Christina Tournant's death has added to our grief. Every life is a treasure, every student is valued, and every moment of friendship is precious. We must remember to be kind to ourselves and to others.

We are each other's harvest; we are each other's business; we are each other's magnitude and bond. Gwendolyn Brooks

Freedom about 3 years ago

That's true, anon.

Libby Hsu about 3 years ago

anon, it goes both ways. If faculty and staff have a closer relationship with students, they might also be more likely to notice when a student is hurting. That doesn't come about by holding a few cursory social gatherings; it comes about through a profound change in the daily atmosphere and instructors' attitudes toward students. You don't have to be a mental health expert to help contribute to a healthy campus through your actions and words.

anon about 3 years ago

In my experience professors are only interested in students that seem particularly bright and enthusiastic. However, yeah I do think training professors to be more supportive in general would be a positive thing. Problem is, while some professors are already great at this, others suck and it's hard to imagine them ever changing.

I also think MIT mental health needs more therapists. very under-staffed.

Anne DiNoto about 3 years ago

As a Greater Boston community member as someone with a family history of suicide I encourage everyone to reach out beyond MIT for support. There are many resources and people who want to help. Check out Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention- Greater Boston Region, SAMHSA Campus Suicide Prevention Grant program, National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention (research agenda national plan) the First World Health Organization report on suicide prevention (2014) among others. I have organized Survivors Day in Boston since 2012.