Opinion guest column

The role of Residential Life Area Directors

Search for RLADs on campus should focus on mental health experience

The tragedies at MIT in recent months gave a new sense of urgency to the discussion about mental health support for all members of the community. A crucial part of undergraduate student life at MIT is the dorm experience and the unique and diverse residential communities we pride ourselves on encouraging. In 2012, the Division of Student Life (DSL) introduced the Residential Life Area Director (RLAD) position to the existing dorm structures on campus.

Following the first hires in August 2012, some dormitories have had positive results with the integration of RLADs. Yet others, such as East Campus and Senior House, have had less success. In these dorms, an air of skepticism and suspicion surrounds the position, and both are currently conducting searches for new RLADs. In light of the recent events at MIT, the timing is right for focusing the role on addressing the mental well-being of students on a day-to-day basis. We could use trained professionals who can address the stigma that still surrounds mental health issues and care for hard-to-reach students who are affected but hesitant to seek health resources.

The stress load associated with a top-caliber institution such as MIT affects the entire community. Impostor syndrome is ubiquitous. Facing the possibility that I would be forced to leave MIT without my doctorate, I had a hard time convincing myself that it would be a useful and necessary endeavor to visit MIT Mental Health. But doing so gave me the chance to discuss and improve myself in that very stressful time of my life. For at-risk students, the time delay between symptoms and treatment can sometimes mean life or death. Often recognizing the need for mental health treatment in the first place is half of the battle. Identifying and understanding the issues of specific students is highly contextual, requiring personal trust and knowledge. A properly trained RLAD would be uniquely positioned to provide student support at critical times.

There is no doubt that the MIT mental health programs are effective for students, with half of all students using these services at least once during their time at MIT. Student Support Services, MIT Mental Health, and outreach programs like Peer Ears provide outlets and communication pathways for dealing with stress and mental issues. However, many students have an abject fear of unnecessary withdrawal or involuntary commitment as a direct consequence of their mental health treatment. The RLAD position can provide a welcoming and constant presence that dispels the stigma and misconceptions about mental health care. Moreover, a mental-health focused RLAD can encourage students to use these services and make the aid process as transparent and accessible as possible.

The difficulty in recognizing isolated at-risk students is twofold: a mental care provider needs to be able to socially engage and earn the trust of the student while understanding and empathizing with the student and their unique problems. GRTs and housemasters are MIT employees with multiple jobs, and one of the ways RLADs can improve the dorm system is to give their communities the undivided attention that cannot come from graduate students and professors. Accessible around the clock, an RLAD focused on community integration and social development can provide prompt and sustained help when it’s needed. The students who have not developed or cannot develop the necessary personal support systems to feel valued and connected to the MIT community stand to gain the most from this resource.

The counter-cultural mindset and insular nature of dorms and halls like my own (East Campus) have made the integration of an RLAD into the community extraordinarily difficult. The perceived focus of the RLAD position on rule enforcement has made it untenable, and until now students have largely avoided interaction on a voluntary basis. However, this gap must be bridged for the sake of student health, and the current search is an opportunity to redefine the position’s relationship with the community for the better.

In order to best address and meet the requirements of the unique social groups at hand, I ask that DSL take time to identify the candidates who can effectively work with these living communities, integrate, and provide better care for the students at risk. I applaud the foresight of DSL in tackling the issues of mental health head-on and I suggest using the RLAD position in continuing efforts in this area. The right personality is vital to becoming a trusted member of the dorm community, and the right qualifications and experience are vital to providing students the support they lack. Only through trust and experience can an RLAD be an effective and consistent tool for students.

I invite Dean Humphreys, Dean Colombo, and DSL to respond and reaffirm the importance of the mental health of our student population. As an East Campus GRT, I ask for an RLAD candidate with the mental health experience to best serve our students in this capacity. Let’s actively promote good mental health and continue what DSL started in our efforts to strengthen our campus community.

Ian Faust is a GRT of East Campus and a PhD candidate in the department of Nuclear Science and Engineering.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

Hear, hear. An RLAD who consistently sides staunchly with the Housemaster who nobody trusts probably does nothing for a student's mental health. At that point, I suppose it doesn't matter that she's also never in her office. #bcwoes

Nextite about 9 years ago

As a resident of Next House that has worked on various Next projects/activities, I am happy to say that our RLAD Jimmy Doan has interpreted his role in the best way possible. He has been an effective liaison between the residents and administration (e.g. our housemasters, EHS), and he has always been open to student's walking into his office and talking about various problems. Moreover, he has helped many students with intra-dorm matters, be it purchasing materials or helping with the grills at CPW.

However, I will admit that our reception to Jimmy was a little cold and untrusting at first, similar to the East Campus dorms. Perhaps it is because his arrival coincided with the security changes that were implemented at Next, but many students felt that he was another authority figure that was intruding on student culture.

In order for an RLAD to be effective, especially with issues like mental health that require an immense amount of trust, there not only has to be effort on part of the RLAD, but also on part of the dorm. I can imagine that EC and Senior Haus have been less than friendly, and it is very hard to reach out to a group that is not receptive of you in the first place.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

In my experience, a more confidential source is best for those facing the more severe mental health problems. With the current scare of "if you go to Mental Health, they'll kick you out" (which is true for about 50 of hospitalized students from an earlier tech article), I think that an RLAD will be a hindrance to the community, serving as a mandatory reporter, might be doing more harm than good. As someone who knows a number of students who have been hospitalized, there has been a nearly unanimous consensus among these friends that the hospitalization and hell that MIT administration put them through to leave the hospital put them in a worse position than when they arrived at the hospital. In summary, I think an RLAD is a scary figure for those with "more-severe" issues of suicidal thoughts and self-harm. We already have GRTs and awesome housemasters - why is MIT forcing someone we don't know, don't trust, and already don't like down our throats?

RAM about 9 years ago

It seems the Institute could do a better job pre-screening students before admission. Once admitted, students who can't handle the work or environment can probably benefit little from bureaucrats in the dorms.

Anonymous about 9 years ago

4: The Institute only admits people who are qualified to handle the work and environment. Some (and by "some" I mean a sizable subset of the population) people end up needing mental health treatment over the course of their time here, but that doesn't mean they don't belong here. It just means smart people who need help are getting help so they can survive here.

previous GRT about 9 years ago

Adding extra people to watch out for students and guide them is a good idea. What is not good is adding extra layers of bureaucracy between students and getting them help. For instance, in the 2000s, GRTs could walk a student to Medical and be part of their "processing" but in the 2010s, once GRTs help the students make process, they are told that its "confidential" and dissuaded from being part of the process. This is due to the CYA nature of the institute, but it doesn't actually help students to find that they are just being passed along through different counselors having to re-explain their problems all the time. What's worse is that many of these counselors are 9-5ers, and after hours, they are not there and not helpful. GRTs are available almost nearly 24-7. So removing GRTs and adding extra bureacracy actually prevents students from getting support and fractures trust. In addition, it seems (based on experience) most the institute "automated response" to students in need is to try to keep them out, rather than looking at each case and considering the person. I've had ex-students who went through medical who did everything that MIT asked to prove their fitness (eg. aced outside classes, and held down jobs and been very responsible in attending counseling) who were denied readmission multiple times. I thought that was a mistake, but the institute never asked the people who knew them best (their GRTs). There's a long list of things that adding bureaucracy does to prevent/obstruct actual care and wellbeing of students.

RAM about 9 years ago

" It just means smart people who need help are getting help so they can survive here."

But is a bureaucrat in a dorm the best source of help, or even a good one, in such instances?

EC resident about 9 years ago

Agree with 6 that GRTs getting shafted is the big issue here. The problem with getting an RLAD is not that they won't do anything useful; an RLAD not doing anything useful is fine - we've had that for a year now, and reading 2, it seems like the Next RLAD helps with paperwork and chores every once in awhile so RLADs are slightly better than useless.

The problem is that when ResLife wants to do something to a community, if an RLAD exists, they stop pulling in students/GRTs and start bringing in RLADs. They stop trusting students to manage themselves and insist that the RLAD be responsible for "residential programming". They start thinking that "oh we checked with the RLAD" is good enough reason to change a dorm's policies. They start making distinctions between "adults" and "students" as if we're not adults.

I don't want a DSL ambassador to East Campus. With enough work, we could convince a friendly RLAD to be the East Campus ambassador to DSL instead, but we already have one. It's called a "president". And we picked them. DSL didn't.

EC resident about 9 years ago

I left out some things by accident, like supplying context and reading and responding to the article.

On mental health: It seems like the RLAD could be a useful, trained, and trusted figure. I think that because people mostly go to their friends or GRTs, that the benefit of an RLAD is limited and outweighed by my previous comment, but I don't deny it exists.

On context: for those who aren't EC residents, EC is going through an RLAD search. It's controversial because it's likely that student beds will be deleted to make space for someone. And I don't want them on my hall.