Opinion guest column

Breaking point

How are you doing? Actually? Because I am tired.

9582 how
How are you doing? Actually?
Courtesy of Salma Islam
9583 better2
What would make things better?
Courtesy of Salma Islam
9584 joy
Share something that has been bringing you joy lately.
Courtesy of Salma Islam

CW: Mentions of suicide, depression

I’ll never forget that when I told a friend during my freshman year of high school that MIT was my dream school, they expressed concern. Even though they too were interested in engineering, they told me they would never even consider MIT because of the high suicide rates. Looking back on that conversation now as a junior is extremely saddening, because they were not completely wrong. I am concerned about students’ mental health and wellbeing right now. I remember crying profusely when I found out that spring break was replaced by long weekends, anticipating that students would be burnt out. Unfortunately, I underestimated how strong the effect would be.

I have consistently struggled my way through MIT, and I don’t believe I’m stronger for it, nor do I believe it has to be this way. In the past year, it has become even more difficult to perform regularly in classes, due to the pandemic and the stress and grief surrounding the horrifying racial injustices we have seen against the Black and Asian communities. After hearing about the death of a Yale first year a few weeks ago, I knew that change had to happen and someone needed to talk about this. Students aren’t coping and need to be supported.

I sent out a form via email to students across the MIT community, asking a very simple question: “how are you doing? actually?” I also asked what could be done to help and what was currently bringing them joy. I received close to 300 responses and decided to do some textual analysis to see what could be gleaned from the form.

As an international student, an off-campus student, and a struggling student, I was honestly not prepared to write this even though I knew it was needed. I knew the havoc it would wreak on my mental health, but I decided to undertake this emotional labor because I am worried about myself and my peers. I am not at all surprised by the responses: concern for themselves and peers, burnout, depression, suicidal thoughts, and simply asking that something be done. The suggestions were varied but one thing was consistent: needing a break, clearly not caused by laziness but by exhaustion. I created a word cloud and poem of the responses because I believe they speak for themselves.

To my peers I say, please take care of yourselves first and foremost. It is a difficult time, but you are not alone. Please know when to reach out for help, when to ask for extensions, and when to drop a class. Remember, sleep is for the strong. You are the priority, and MIT will still be here even after you take a break. I also wanted to share this playlist that I made and listened to while writing this article; it’s been bringing me joy, and I hope it does for you, too.

To MIT’s administration, I have some suggestions that I gathered from the responses and based on my own experiences:

It is heinous to believe that parents are sending off their children to institutions such as MIT believing they will be cared for, and instead, we are met with the most challenging mental health struggles. Drinking from the firehose isn’t something to be romanticized, and we deserve better.

how are you doing? actually?

i feel like i’m missing out on something and i don’t even know what it is i’m missing.
i feel like i’m experiencing the same weeks of hell over and over again, but i fear the future.
i go through cycles of complete and utter despair mixed with actually feeling happy for a change.
i’m drowning. i’m burnt out, i’m tired, i’m behind.
feeling cloudy. stuck. unhappy. sad. mad.
the feeling of confidence and helplessness is like this periodic function.
at i’m least treading and not drowning right now.
it’s getting difficult to handle things.
i’m actually really good.
i’m excited sometimes.
why does MIT think it’s ok to give us this much work.
it’s tough sometimes it’s also a lot of fun but it’s also quite miserable too.
not the best but trying.
trying to “get ahead.”
i’m just trying to keep my composure. 
i am hanging on by a thread.
i spend hours panicking and crying.
i’m so fucking hosed.
i have to “get back to work.” 
i feel a little lost and pretty isolated.
i’m not great, but not as bad as I could be, I guess?
i’m bad but like the normal level of bad not the scary level.
grateful for relative stability.
i appreciate MIT for helping me become a nicer person to myself.

what would make things better?

getting vaccinated.
if i had less work. if i could more easily spend time with my friends.
probably sleep.
less work.
a week of no deadlines.
a break.
more sympathy? more confidence? believing everything is going to be okay? 
i am searching for something to make each day just a little bit easier.
i wish i had more mentors that looked like me.
if i could see my therapist once a week.
hearing, seeing, feeling, experiencing that my loved ones are okay.
knowing that my professors care about me as an individual.
having the time to put my energy into creative hobbies.
a chance to come up for air!
i genuinely don’t know.
less isolation.
a real break where we can relax and take time to ourselves.
believing that my happiness matters. 
more late days.
a hug. a job. peace of mind.
more empathy.
i’d like the answer when you find it.
more time to exist.
not having grades to worry about.

share something that has been bringing you joy lately

my bunny <3
my faith.
no forced positivity. no silver lining.
plants. the sun. the weather.
simple things: picnics near the river, milkshakes after a long day, the sun.
my podmates.
my guitar.
hiking. disconnecting from the world.
cambridge’s soft moss.
online games with friends.
human interaction.
anime. jujutsu kaisen.
boba and weekends.
nothing really.
exploring my independence.
exploring cambridge.
the charles.
making art.
the clubs i’m involved in.
eating cafe 472. tosci’s.
the dogs around campus.