What’s best for you
Reflections from a recent graduate forced to take medical leave
Editor’s note: This article discusses issues relating to mental health, forced psychiatric treatment, and sexual assault. The writer is kept anonymous due to the nature of this content.
In December 2010, I was forced to take a voluntary medical leave from MIT. I was a sophomore.
During my freshman fall, I was sexually assaulted by a senior on campus. For a short time, it seemed I would be just fine. I got straight A’s, I joined a sorority, and I even scored a brain and cognitive sciences UROP for my freshman summer — a perfect start for an ambitious young premed.
Then things started to change. Small things, stupid things out of nowhere triggered memories of the assault and sent me into tears. A song. Black shoes with a white sole.
Fearing more triggers, I began avoiding others and withdrew into my room. Realizing that this wasn’t something I could handle on my own, I began seeing someone at MIT Mental Health — a psychologist. She was blonde, well dressed, and friendly. I liked her. I explained why I had come to see her, and with time, I felt better and stopped going to Mental Health. That was how it was supposed to work, right? You’re sick, you see a doctor. Then you get better and don’t see a doctor anymore.
Then, as the semester gained momentum and my depression returned with a fury, I returned to see her. It was now November. “I missed a lot of class,” I explained to her, “and two of my instructors advised me to drop the classes. I don’t know what to do with all of my time now.”
I kept talking, but as the session continued, it became clear that something wasn’t quite right. It took a few questions before I realized that she had completely misinterpreted why I had come to visit Mental Health in the first place.
I remember her face clearly — eyes wide, mouth in a little o of surprise. “I thought you had been pressured into saying yes to sex and then regretted it. I didn’t realize that you had been raped.”
She did not change her clinical strategy, and she did not refer me to services specializing in helping sexual assault victims. She just listened and nodded with sad, sympathetic eyes, and I walked away from that session full of despair. I had done what I was supposed to do, what all the signs in the Infinite had told me; I had sought help, and it was futile. I was beyond help.
I love MIT, and I genuinely believe that MIT cares about its students. But the administration’s duty to care for our community extends far beyond chauffeuring students toward Mental Health and S^3.
At Mental Health, students need to know that they can switch counselors, and that doing so won’t penalize them in any way. They should know how to assess if therapy is working for them, and trust that negative feedback won’t be dismissed. There are many horror stories of Mental Health visits besides my own — of clinicians who were unable to hide their boredom, who acted like passive bobbleheads, or, worst of all, allowed skepticism to manifest on their faces while listening to student problems.
Mental Health wasn’t the only resource I visited during my sophomore fall. I met one of the deans of S^3 a few times in September and October, telling her about the rape and my subsequent struggles with depression. She was all kindness and sympathy. Was school the best place for me? Did I want to take a semester off?
I shook my head. My friends were here, my community was here. Learning, pushing myself, competing — this was what I thrived on. What was I supposed to do with time off at home that would be more meaningful or helpful than time spent at MIT?
December arrived, but things had only gotten worse. Now, nothing made me feel better — not friends, not Mental Health, and not S^3. I was constantly on the verge of tears and forever felt as if I were drowning — I couldn’t stand it. I only existed to drag everyone else down.
I wrote a suicide note and ran across campus to get lunch alone. I brought a pillow and a book in my backpack. I sat on the pillow, reclined on my backpack, and opened the book. Halfway through the first chapter, I decided I was being melodramatic and began getting ready to go back to my room.
But meanwhile, a friend had found the note. They panicked and called the police. The police found me before I finished packing up where I had been reading on one of the roofs on campus.
I was whisked away to Massachusetts General Hospital. The psychiatric holding room in the ER was little more than a cell — pure steel and concrete, the bed in the middle bolted to the floor and naked except for a fitted sheet. I waited there for ten hours, alone, before being transferred to the psychiatric ward at Newton-Wellesley Hospital. By the time I got out six days later, my life had fundamentally changed.
I was informed by MIT that it was decided I should spend IAP at home on a “voluntary” medical withdrawal. MIT claims that almost all students who take medical leave do so voluntarily. But it certainly doesn’t feel that way when an S^3 dean tells you that the alternative to taking a voluntary withdrawal is an involuntary medical withdrawal, which has even stricter requirements for returning.
I “chose” the voluntary medical leave. Soon after, I was informed that I would not be allowed to return to MIT for the entire spring semester. Mid-January, I was given 24 hours to pack up my dorm room and drive everything back to my hometown.
I didn’t understand. I had been raped by an MIT senior on MIT campus. I had confided in Student Support Services and in a therapist at Mental Health, the way every poster and orientation booklet told me I was supposed to. I had become suicidal on MIT campus after failing to be helped by one of their own counselors, despite my initiative to seek help. I had not caused any sort of physical harm to myself or anyone else.
If MIT truly wanted to help me, I did not understand why they were sending me away instead of allowing me to stay and receive treatment concurrent with classes, surrounded by a valuable support network.
I sought answers, but received none. Important decisions were being made about my life without me. To join the conversation, I tried to figure out who was in charge. All I uncovered was an endless goose chase. The head of MIT Mental Health, Dr. Alan Siegel, told me that the decision was up to the deans. The deans pointed to MIT Medical and the staff at the hospital. The hospital staff told me that they had no decision-making power and pointed back to MIT.
The one thing that was consistent was the chorus at every turn of the maze. “What you need to understand,” everyone told me, “is that we are doing what is best for you. Not what you believe is best for you.”
MIT and I were in complete agreement on one fact: that I needed help. What I don’t understand, even today, is why they decided I needed to be sent home. MIT had made promises to me of community, support, and acceptance, and sent me away when I faltered and asked them for the help that they assured they would provide. I had followed the flowcharts and signs to mental health and to S^3, and each of the resources failed me in its own way, without claiming any responsibility for its part in a faulty system.
What added most to my feeling of betrayal, then and now, was that I never received an explanation or was allowed to partake in an open conversation. I just wanted to understand why. Why my case warranted a mandatory withdrawal. Why I was deemed incapable of both continuing school and receiving treatment — one of the outcomes for other hospitalized students in the past and a solution that I had proposed dozens of times. Being excluded from the conversation about my withdrawal made me feel abandoned by the place I identified most strongly as home.
I understand that it is imperative for institutions to be able to issue involuntary withdrawals, especially in a scenario where a student is refusing to receive help of any kind. But given the grave emotional, financial, and academic impact this action has, it should be a last resort — one that is justified explicitly to that student if it is implemented.
Institutions and individuals will never be in perfect agreement. My request today is simply for more transparency when institutional decisions affect the individual.
In January, back in my hometown, I was still depressed. But there, I was even more lost and overwhelmed.
I received no support or outreach from MIT during my year away. I was bidden farewell with an email listing MIT’s requirements: that I “engage in a continuous course of treatment including, but not limited to, individual therapy and possible psychopharmacologic treatment,” “engage in sustained, productive activity,” and have a summary of all my mental health records forwarded to Dr. Siegel and the deans for assessment prior to my return.
I attended group therapy twice a week, saw a therapist independently, and complied with the orders of the psychiatrist at the group therapy location when he recommended I take an antidepressant. I joined a lab near my hometown. I had a painful meeting with the PI where I had to lay bare the reasons for my absence from MIT, and without any college degree, I couldn’t get paid for my work. I was immensely grateful that they were willing to take me in, but it all added to the sense of worthlessness that had been building in me ever since I left the hospital.
I was also devastatingly lonely. My high school friends were all away at college, and my friends at MIT were still busy as ever. Listening to their schedules and activities filled me with envy and inadequacy more intense than any imposter syndrome I felt as their peer. Instead of helping me, being away from MIT was decreasing my morale and self-esteem. I felt like an utter failure.
Still, I continued receiving treatment and working, and in May I reapplied to return for the fall term. I waited until the end of July for a response from Dr. Siegel, the deans, and my advisor. Their answer was not what I expected.
“The Panel recognizes the steps you have taken to prepare yourself to return to MIT and commends your efforts. However, the Panel feels that continued time away will help you solidify your gains and better prepare you to return to MIT’s challenging environment … The Panel anticipates your disappointment with its decision. However, it believes the above recommendations will enhance prospects for success at MIT. Please arrange an appointment with [the deans] to discuss any thoughts or concerns regarding these expectations.”
What I remember most vividly was the conversation with my department advisor, immediately after I told her how much I valued the MIT community and hoped to return. “I am just not convinced you appreciate MIT for its education,” she said. “It’s very concerning. I want to reemphasize that transferring is an option, if you decide that this is not really the best place for you.”
I protested that I had gotten straight A’s while taking 7.03 and 5.12 during my freshman spring, and that this showed I was fully capable of handling MIT when I was not juggling rape trauma and depression on the side. She just brushed me off.
Galvanized by my anger, I rededicated myself to the lab and took a language class at a local university. As a non-degree candidate, I was not eligible for financial aid, so the cost of that single class was $10,000. I was incredibly lucky that my family could financially support me during my year away from school.
I reapplied to MIT in fall 2011 and was informed of my readmission in January 2012. Soon afterward, I received a call from the head of MIT Mental Health, Dr. Siegel.
“What normally happens when students come back,” he explained, his voice deliberately nonchalant, “is that I have coffee or lunch with them once a month or so. It’s nice and casual, at a dining hall like Simmons — just a check-in to see how things are going.”
I smiled and told him that sounded great.
Here’s what happened next:
—I matriculated back into MIT in spring 2012.
—I switched department advisors and never looked back.
—I never saw or spoke to Alan Siegel again.
—I found a wonderful independent therapist with no ties to MIT.
—I pressed charges against my rapist through the Committee of Discipline in April 2012. He was not found responsible.
—I became a volunteer with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center and devoted two years to assisting them in their mission to eliminate sexual violence.
—I co-authored two publications that resulted from my research during medical leave.
—I applied to medical school during my senior year and got into the school of my dreams.
—I graduated from MIT in June 2014 with my crimson diploma and a giant smile on my face.
I am certainly not the only one who has struggled with rape, depression, or “voluntary” withdrawal, as many recent Tech Opinion pieces, Admissions Blog posts, and reports of suicide confirm. But I am in a unique position to call for more support for students who are on leave from MIT.
I was lucky. During my own medical withdrawal, I had two friends to talk to who could specifically empathize with different parts of my story. One had been hospitalized for depression. Another had gone on involuntary academic leave after their freshman year. Their empathy was a beacon that led me through the fog of my shame, isolation, and despair.
Even with my friends’ support, it was hard to imagine my new five-year plan. How would employers and professional schools evaluate the blank space on my transcript? How will it feel to return and graduate a year later than I had planned? What on earth do I say when people ask me what year I am? Mentorship groups to answer questions like these currently exist, but they are only aimed at returning students who are transitioning back to school. For the many students who are beginning or continuing time away from MIT, the ability to consult someone regarding these stressful questions — to talk to someone who understands, without needing an explanation of the nuances and the process of withdrawals — would be an immense relief.
Implementing a program that supports students who are at home on leave would do wonders for their health and happiness. It could provide guidance for how to find a “productive activity” in an unfamiliar setting, instead of adding that immense task to an already formidable set of challenges. It would reassure students that leaving MIT doesn’t have to prevent them from achieving their career goals. It would show them that leaving doesn’t mean that they’ve ruined their future.
For me, at least, I know it would have made a world of difference.