Campus Life

The hilly road back to MIT

What happens when students are hospitalized, and the toll on those close to them

My friend Emily was one of the many MIT students admitted to McLean, a psychiatric hospital, last semester after the death of Phoebe Wang.

One night, I was shocked to find Emily unresponsive one hour after she attempted suicide by overdosing on two different drugs, one of which was prescribed to her. With the help of a GRT, an on-call mental health clinician, the MIT Emergency Medical Service, the MIT Police Department, and Cambridge Fire Department paramedics, Emily was transported to Massachusetts General Hospital and put on IV fluids.

Her GRT drove me to the hospital, and we waited in the emergency room; it felt like a nightmare. Emily was delirious, speaking nonsense and constantly asking what was going on, her mind completely clouded and oblivious to our words and the words of the nurses. There was a terrifying “sitter” at the door who was neither a nurse nor a doctor, just a person who had the job of sitting there and making sure that Emily did not try to kill herself again.

Eventually, some doctors from the psychiatric wing came in to speak with Emily, and we waited outside of the room. When Emily’s mother got to the hospital, we were told to leave.

Emily, whose name has been changed in this story to protect her privacy, had been going to MIT Mental Health & Counseling for many months, and she had told her doctor and many friends of her frequent suicidal thoughts. I had held her countless times as she cried and told me of these thoughts, and sometimes we would just sit together and cry. She kept asking why it was so difficult, just everything at MIT. If only it were just us who were struggling.

We were and are not alone — not at MIT, and not across the college population. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, more than 25 percent of college students have been diagnosed or treated by a professional for a mental health condition within the past year.

More people than ever are seeking help from MIT’s Mental Health & Counseling. As compared to monthly data from 2013, last September and October saw a 14 percent increase in the number of undergraduate students and a 22 percent increase in the number of graduate students seen at MH&C. Additionally, more people have been using the on-call mental health urgent care line. From August to October 2013, there were 36 calls total; in the same months of 2014, there were 55 calls during business hours alone.

Alan Siegel, the head of Mental Health at MIT, said that colleges in the area are all seeing high numbers of psychiatric admittances to hospitals. McLean is the hospital that almost all MIT students are admitted to if they are hospitalized for mental health reasons. While there, Emily said that “about half the people [at McLean] are college students going through mid-college crises like us, and the other half are older people with families that are going through midlife crises.”

According to Siegel, this is an unprecedented occurrence — the number of college students is usually far outnumbered by the number of older patients.

Many students, upon arrival to McLean, feel uninformed about what hospitalization entails and what the results of their actions would be. This means that a major issue is the distribution of information. Our normal psychiatric hospitalization rate of 40–50 people a year may seem small compared to our MIT community of around 20,000 people. However, to all those people who are close to the situation, it is difficult when one feels uninformed about hospitalizations and would like to help a friend during a challenging time.

When Emily was hospitalized, none of her friends knew how to approach the situation. At first, we were not allowed to visit her at Massachusetts General Hospital. When I called and asked when I could see my friend, they said that they were not allowing any visitors due to the flu outbreak. When I asked why she was being kept in pediatrics and where she was going next, they would not disclose any information. When I talked to her on the phone, I got panicked stories of how the doctors were not telling her anything and that she was petrified that they would never let her come home to MIT, which is all she wanted to do.

MIT provides pamphlets and information for those who are hospitalized. Sharon Snaggs Gendron, Assistant Director of Student Outreach and Support, is responsible for getting that information to those students. However, the information is not always consistent since every situation is unique. Furthermore, when a student is in a stressful situation, the last thing that the student wants to do is read an information booklet. This is why someone from MIT’s Student Outreach and Support will usually visit a student who is admitted to a hospital for psychiatric reasons.

When I asked Emily if she had been visited in the hospital by someone yet, she said that she didn’t remember. When I asked if she got any sort of booklet, she answered: “Probably, but I did not read it. I didn’t read anything that they gave me. They just weren’t telling me anything.”

There’s the rub. Most students rightfully believe that they will never have to go through psychiatric hospitalization, so they don’t research what is involved and what one’s rights are. However, once a student is actually hospitalized, they are too overwhelmed and panicked to read or research the information.

Eventually, Emily was transported in an ambulance to McLean, where she was kept in the admittance room for over three hours while they typed away and got a room ready for her. When she was finally admitted, the nurses took away most of her belongings: a bag with handles, pants with drawstrings, her cell phone charger, most of her clothes. She was left crying in a room, alone in her hospital pants and surrounded by dull white walls adorned with a terrible painting. Her friends were informed of visiting hours, and we immediately made plans to see her as soon as we could.

It was hell getting to McLean. The hospital is located in Belmont, which is accessible via the commuter rail, but Google Maps does not accurately describe the 20-minute sidewalk-less trek in the dark to the hilly campus of McLean. It was scary and rainy and absolutely awful, and we swore never to do it again. So we took a $40 taxi home.

But not before we brought Emily new pants and shorts and food and anything else the nurses would let us bring inside for her. And it was just like jail: we were only allowed to give one hug hello and one hug goodbye. We gave her secret under-the-table hand squeezes and hoped that the nurses wouldn’t kick us out. They would pass by every ten minutes with a click, counting the patients with a device.

Our housemaster drove us a couple more times. We rented Zipcars other times. Borrowed cars another time. The drive was long and painful, like the commuter rail. A week went by. I remember the phone calls I had with Emily: “I just want to come home. They won’t let me come home.”

After this terrible experience, I emailed Siegel to learn more about how MIT handles hospitalizations. Siegel commented in an email: “Dr. Lejeune or I see every student who is hospitalized in all psychiatric inpatient units, not just McLean. We consult with the clinical teams caring for students in the hospital. If a student is hospitalized out of state, we will also engage the clinicians who are caring for the student. We do this to make sure the clinicians understand MIT and also to facilitate discharge planning.” Simon Lejeune is the associate chief of Mental Health & Counseling at MIT, and the doctor that Emily spoke with at McLean.

Siegel reported that most hospitalizations occur due to students being unable to function on their own. This could mean the student is failing most of or all of her classes, is abusing and addicted to a substance, or is so depressed that she is unable to get out of bed and heal. Not all hospitalizations are related to self-harm or suicide.

In the 2012-2013 academic year, 43 MIT students were hospitalized for mental health reasons without involving MIT Mental Health & Counseling. Of those, 22 students returned to their studies directly from hospitalization. These are small numbers compared to the total undergraduate and graduate body size, over 10,000 people. However, it does show that students who are hospitalized have a good chance of returning to their studies if the student’s academics are not compromised.

These were all things that we did not know when Emily was at McLean. She was hospitalized, and terrified of not being able to get back to MIT.

Between the Office of Student Outreach and Support, Mental Health & Counseling, Student Support Services, and more, hospitalized students are well taken care of. However, the people closest to them are the ones that also need to be cared for and reached out to in crisis. This is an ongoing issue that many do not think about. The administration is also struggling to reach out to a community in crisis.

MacGregor Hall, East Campus, and Maseeh Hall all found support from the administration after their respective tragedies. Student Support Services and Mental Health & Counseling sent representatives to the dormitories, and many professors were very understanding of students’ reactions to the deaths.

But it does not take a death to shake a community. In one dormitory, after a student attempted suicide, the people who were close to the student were unnerved for weeks, slipping academically. I found one of the students in the hallway in the middle of the day walking to Student Support Services, not during open hours and without an appointment, almost in tears. After giving him my time slot, he ended up taking a leave from MIT.

When Emily finally came back to MIT, she immediately crashed. She could not sleep in her own room because it brought back memories of her overdose. She could not go a day without a panic attack. She feared not being able to succeed at MIT or being sent back to McLean.

But then she got better. Time passed; we all healed slowly but surely. And then there was the death of Matthew, and then there was the death of Christina, and then Phoebe’s death was officially ruled a suicide after months of uncertainty, and then we all fell down again.

These tragedies happen, people fall apart — what can we do together to stay sane and secure in our own skin?

Rachel Davis is an EMT, MedLink, MIT Admissions blogger, and member of the Class of 2016.