MIT ‘Meltdown’ Blog Resonates With Stressed-Out Students

Lydia K.’s “meltdown” hit hard shortly after she began her junior year at MIT.

“Toward the end of September,” Lydia blogged, “I became noticeably stressed out. I stopped talking to people, I stopped cleaning my room, and I got very lonely. It culminated in an hour-long cry session after a benign meeting with my biology professor about a class presentation.”

An MIT undergrad blogs about the intense stress of college life when “no matter how hard you work…you’re not good enough.”

A 20-year-old self-described “perfectionist” who was born in Moscow and started high school-level classes in 7th grade, Lydia had also stopped sleeping, spent much of her time working alone in a basement and, though feeling ill, was ignoring her symptoms. She’d recently missed a week of classes after recovering from a medical procedure and was struggling to catch up.

One night while working on a project that wasn’t quite coming together, Lydia — a computer science and molecular biology major and a paid blogger for the MIT Admissions Department — decided to take a break and blog about her troubled, under-pressure state of mind. Though the instructions from Admissions were, she said, to keep it “PG and pretend that you’re writing for your grandmother” Lydia decided to go for emotional truth and honesty. Here’s a taste:

“I don’t think many people understand what we mean when we say that MIT is hard. It’s not just the workload.

There’s this feeling that no matter how hard you work, you can always be better, and as long as you can be better, you’re not good enough. You’re a slacker, you’re stupid…There’s stress and there’s shame and there’s insecurity. Sometimes there’s hope. Sometimes there’s happiness. Sometimes there’s overwhelming loneliness.”

Lydia’s raw, revealing portrait of intense undergraduate angst and the enormous pressure to succeed that burdens so many students at MIT and beyond became an instant hit. Shortly after its publication, there were hundreds of comments from alumni, faculty and students from MIT and colleges across the country.  (One example, from Quynh: “This is beautiful. You have put into words what I’ve felt constantly since stepping foot on this campus but unable to express. Thank you.” And from Random Harvard Student: “I go to Harvard, and this article perfectly hits on how I feel sometimes. Thank you so much for writing such a beautiful piece that makes me feel less pathetic about crying after coming back from a lab where I understood absolutely nothing.”)

The piece got more than 4,000 “likes” on Facebook and over 40,000 views, more than most admissions blogs, according to Admissions Dean Stuart Schmill, who added that Lydia’s “meltdown” “is not the type of post you’d usually find on an admissions website.”

MIT’s President Rafael Reif responded with an open letter in the student newspaper, The Tech, citing Lydia’s “powerful account of her feelings of academic strain and anxiety” and calling for a deeper conversation about some of the problems she raised. He wrote:

It is not clear to me that there is a magic wand of institutional action that would address the issues that Lydia highlights, in ways that would be acceptable to the MIT community as a whole; many of those posting comments shared this view, too. But the sheer number of people who responded to her post, and the warmth, respect and support evident in their comments, tell me that we should try to broaden and deepen this conversation across our community. I would urge every member of the MIT community — faculty, students, staff and alumni — to read Lydia’s words and try to imagine how we might respond, as individuals, as groups within the Institute and as an institution overall.

Earlier this week, The Tech announced a new survey based on the piece: “Did Lydia K’s blog post resonate with you? The Tech is running a survey about stress at MIT.”

I heard about Lydia’s blog last weekend, when I happened to be at dinner with a bunch of MIT undergrads (my husband teaches there). They’d all read it and were abuzz.

Kaiying Liao, a junior studying computer science, said the post resonated so widely because of its honesty and “detailed description of the mix of feelings the majority of students have about the Institute.” She elaborated in an email:

“While we all enjoy our experience at MIT, there are times when this place makes us feel absolutely miserable. From my experience so far, most of the students including myself have had moments where we break down. This “break down” (or “meltdown” as Lydia called it) typically comes from the feeling that we are somehow not good enough for MIT. Questions like “Am I supposed to be here? Am I smart enough to do this?” often pop into our minds. While the workload is difficult, I think a lot of it has to do with our environment of being constantly surrounded by brilliant and capable people. It is not a feeling of competition, that we think we have to be better than our peers; rather, I see everyone around me as a role model. When I see success in others, I get the idea that I should have the potential to be successful as well. We all go to the same school, so why not?”

Kai said Lydia’s point about never quite feeling “good enough” is something she lives with constantly. “I definitely feel this all the time — no matter how hard I work, I know I can always do better. I want to push myself to keep working, and there does not seem to be a threshold for “good enough.” However, that leads to the question of “Where is the stopping point?” Our own high standards are oftentimes raised further by the standards of our peers, and the inability to believe that something is good enough when the project or piece has already reached a high standard is ultimately what I think makes students feel the pressure and stress.”

Of course the worry among faculty and administrators at MIT and on college campuses across the country is: How is all this stress negatively affecting the mental health of students?

When I spoke to Lydia, she told me her emotional meltdown truly began last year, following two high-profile student suicides at MIT and her own experience with a close friend who left the school due to depression. “It was a dark time for the whole institute,” she said. After that, a slew of other personal troubles — several romantic breakups, a few “C” grades, illness and weird allergies — left Lydia feeling spent and miserable, she said.

In her post, she notes the extreme highs and lows of her college existence:

There’s something to giving everything and always falling short. Eventually we’ll walk out with a deep understanding of our fields, a fantastic tolerance for failure and late nights, and raised expectations for ourselves and for humankind. Someday, we’ll look back on these four years as the best years of our lives and the foundations of the kinds of friendships that can only be formed with some suffering. But right now, IHTFP. Sometimes it feels like MIT drags your self-esteem over a jagged, gravely rockface and stretches your happiness, your mental health, and the passion and energy that brought you here like an old rubber band.

Ultimately, Lydia sought help from student support services, engaged with her advisor and re-established a normal sleep schedule and a more nutritious diet. Then she wrote her story (which I would argue was therapeutic in itself) and found she’s not alone. Now, she says, she’s feeling much more optimistic.

But many college students don’t get the help they need, says Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, PhD., director of the College Mental Health Program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. and an instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School. She offered these statistics:

–80% of college students who need mental health services won’t seek them

–50% of all college students say they have felt so depressed that they found it difficult to function during the last school year

– One out of every four college students suffers from some form of mental illness, including depression

–The rate of student psychiatric hospitalizations has tripled in the past 20 years

Pinder-Amaker says the notion that no matter how hard you work you’re not quite good enough “resonates with college students everywhere.”

Students today are hyper-stressed about achieving academically, but there are even more internal and external pressures, she says, including transitioning away from home, learning to navigate new relationships with roommates, peers, lab partners, faculty, and perhaps — for the first time — an intimate partner. Add to that: increasing angst about the economy and a bleak post-college future, unhealthy habits around not sleeping or eating well and exposure to excessive alcohol, and “you’ve got a perfect storm” of high-stress forces at work.

And without intervention, she said, this everyday stress can devolve into true mental illness under certain conditions.

“There is significant scientific evidence that stress from life experiences is a key ingredient in the development of psychiatric illnesses like Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, etc.” Pinder-Amaker said. “For example…if a student’s life stressors combine with their own predisposition (biochemical, genetic, etc.) to MDD, and the stressors exceed a certain threshold, the person will develop MDD.”

The question is how do you gently steer these kids toward help?

Pinder-Amaker offered this analogy: “What if we knew, like Hurricane Sandy, it was coming to your campus and you had six months to prepare. Would you bring in additional resources to support these students after the fact, or would you try to reach students where they are and teach them methods, skills to manage and navigate these stressors and strategies to deal with the storm, buffer them and protect them from harm?”

The answer, she says, is to do it all. Some schools, for instance, are incorporating mental health and wellness into the required curriculum. Others try to connect kids who might need support with services even before they arrive on campus, through anonymous surveys.

“You need excellent resources and counseling centers, but the same staff, along with other staff and faculty, need to be increasingly engaged and reaching out to students. So you start with the blog and then elevate it to a campus dialogue to try to meet students where they are.”

Lydia, who’d always planned to be a professor of computational biology, says in light of her blog and the compassionate response, she’s considering alternative paths — like becoming a writer (she’s already planning her post-MIT memoir). Also, she’s encouraged that MIT administrators acknowledged the importance of her story. “I’m really happy I managed to open up this dialogue,” she said.

All the emails and comments truly made her feel like she’s not completely lost on her own. “I went from feeling really upset and alone to feeling OK,” she said. “I’m never going to get straight A’s but that’s OK. I’m going to accept that and just focus on learning.” Her favorite response came from an MIT graduate, Ozzie, who wrote: “For what it’s worth, it does get better though. Life won’t always revolve around completing the next pset [problem set], just trying to keep your head above water. One day, you’ll do more than struggle to keep up; you will set the pace. I wish you all the best, and hope things get better for you.”

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  • Richard J D’Souza

    Controlling perfectionism is key to controlling your stress levels.

  • jim

    I can’t believe how it changes me, how what you say won’t let me see. Your power to limit my thinking free. Your ability to cripple my ability. . . . (jim)

  • BGD

    Why is she going for multiple degrees ?

  • K

    Medical student here. Can’t say my undergrad felt like that at all, but med school certainly does. Even if you’re (barely) on top of your classes, there’s that niggling feeling of “I should be studying” at the back of your mind 24/7. And regrettably, the mental health support is little more than a gesture. Almost all of my female classmates have developed or expressed an anxiety or depressive disorder, and I’m guessing the males are just more willing to lie (and we all have to on some level, because who’s going to admit to the administration that you’re struggling because of a mental disorder, when you’re relying on them to recommend you for a position where patients’ lives are in your hands?). I guess the thing that makes it all so overwhelming is that real life doesn’t stop: things like emotional growth, family, money, exercise, relaxation, sleep… medical school is so all-consuming that even making a half-assed attempt at a balanced lifestyle is going to start cutting into our academics. In an ultra-competitive environment like this one, that’s unacceptable for most of us.

    And to those implying that the above student is a whining victim: a) do you have any idea what mental illness is like and b) have you ever set out to accomplish something in your life where you actually took the risk of failing?

  • Sam Bowman

    I’m there right now. I’m a computer science who is completely distraught with academia and feel like I’m on my last legs. The thing that gets to me the most is the tests. I just can’t seem to cope with teachers giving me grades that say “your work on these assignments is great, now just average it with your test scores and you are mediocre at best”. The worst part is that I enjoy programming, I’m in a where that should be my only goal, and yet of all of the tests I’ve taken I’ve never actually taken one that involves writing code. It’s not that I’m bothered by the stress, or the long hours; I just wish that the methods used to assess my abilities were relevant. I just can’t believe that some day an employer will come up to me and say, “Sam! We need you answer these 50 multiple choice trivia questions about programming theory, you will will be fired for trying to uses reference material or conversing with other employees, you have 1 hour and 50% of your salary is riding on your success”.

    • Sam Bowman

      I wrote that too quickly and missed a few typos: I’m a computer science *student*… in *an environment* where … trying to *use*…

  • rickygr

    This sounds like the academic equivalent of boot camp for special forces. On one hand, it’s supposed to be rigorous to weed out the weak and make the strong stronger. On the other hand, in the academic environment, people with pre-existing mental health issues are at a disadvantage that has nothing inherently to do with their academic capacity, but ends up affecting it. The solution: keep up the academic rigor, but improve mental health screening, accessibility, and treatment services.

  • Rafael

    For those who are belittling the blogger. I ask you what do you do when you go home form work? Do you have dinner, relax a little, talk to your wife and kids maybe? For the student college is a 24/7 job. If you’re not working you should be working and there is always something you could be getting done, something you should be reading. All of my friends who have since graduated and found employment remark upon how simple life is on the outside, you go to work, go home, get a paycheck. For those in school it’s exactly the opposite, in-debt yourself, stay up all night working at home, and go to school where you work for more. Couple that with little to no spending money (means bad nutrition, no outlets other than drinking, no leisure) and you have what really is the worst time in your life.

  • Jorge E

    So much suffering for having to study so much. Oh, poor girl. The silly worries of those with too much time in their hand…

  • ms

    Yes work is hard and it stresses you out; what’s new here? I just finished a PhD. Didn’t really have much of a social life and slept in the lab on some nights? Was I depressed? Yep! Did I question everything in my life after another experiment failed? Yep!!! That’s par for the course. My girlfriend is in med school and interviewing for residencies. You don’t even want to know what they do to those poor souls. I know we can always improve the world/society around us to make it less stressful and that is a noble goal but after a certain point you just need to pony up. It’s how you succeed and believe it or not, you get stronger and you grown into it… to a certain point… (medical residencies, are IMHO still inhumane but getting somewhat better)

  • http://profiles.google.com/shava23 Shava Nerad

    I stole most of my education from MIT in the years 1978-1989 — mostly through the middle 80s really. Think Good_Will_Hunting, but I was mostly working as a programmer and engineer, not a janitor at the time. During part of the time, I was living in the dorm system — it was a somewhat different place in the 70s. ;) The unofficial guide to student life at MIT, HoToGAMIT, listed the Non-Student Resident Association as an unofficial student organization. I had a master key to one of the dorms because that was the only way I could have a key to the empty room I was living in.

    Today, people are stunned at the generosity MIT presents, stemming from Open Courseware into their open university online — but these are extensions of more tolerated and silent behavior in the past.

    As an outsider, inside, I got to see my friends “drinking from the firehose.” While I learned in the multi-hundred student classrooms, anonymously, and studied with friends in common rooms, I was exempt from problem sets and tests and expectations (other than a full time job on the side, heh). But I was also driven in my own way to prove I was “as good” by publishing papers and doing excellent professional work. I went from being a maintenance programmer and data entry droid at Polaroid International Marketing in Tech Square in 1978, to a Chief Software Engineer/Consultant at DEC Ed Services in 1982 with a couple published papers under my belt, working on the Internet (Vint Cerf told me in 1999 I was probably one of the first 50-100 women engineers in that category), and the first commercial multimedia authoring project manager ever, and part of the group that invented the touch screen kiosk, etc, etc.

    But I had the advantage of working in an actualized space during all this. There is an advantage of working with a team with a charter as an engineer, vs treading water as a perfectionist student. I was producing, and could see results that helped people. My friends were being run on gerbil wheels for four years, for the most part, getting wound up tighter and tighter until they could get a piece of paper that said they were certified fresh and ready to do what I was already doing.

    The academic system is a proxy for good judgement, in engineering. It takes maybe three months to tell if a young engineer has what it takes to do the job you need. You don’t need a degree. Degree work breaks more engineers than it makes, and deludes more than it clarifies. I have had young engineers come to me who only knew one computer language and their degree described them as software “engineers.” They didn’t know what a compiler did, or how a pointer worked. You may not know anything about computer languages, but trust me, a software engineer would know these things — they spent four years learning to be a piss-poor programmer.

    This is why the entry level programming jobs are going to Bangalore, and these newly minted kids out of college can’t get jobs anyway. No wonder they’re stressed. The tech managers know that three out of four of their degrees aren’t worth burning, but the HR managers are so CYA-oriented they won’t let anyone through with experience and no degree — they’d rather let Monster filter out talent with search terms.

    It’s really a sad state of affairs. The perfectionist young person is doomed never to find the perfectionist old fogey like me, because the middle is taken up by people who don’t understand what it takes to get things done at all.

    To all those young engineers out there, I say, you are living in my future. I have been on the Internet thirty years this year and it’s an everyday miracle.

    I’m semi-retired now, and if I could, I’d tell you all to drop out and start a skunk works and we’d take over the world! But I can’t.

    But I will say, “GET ON MY LAWN!” ;) Something happened in the middle here that put things out of joint, and you need to know you can find the courage and make it better. Find an engineering solution for *that!*

    • Wm.

      Wow, you’re quite the catch, lady! Geez…

  • Patticakes

    Wow what a victim. Wonder how she’ll handle the real work world.

    • http://www.facebook.com/elizabeth.santorella Elizabeth Santorella

      I’m at MIT. The consensus among people who’ve graduated recently — including people getting PhD’s or in high-stress job in a field like finance — is that the real world is much easier.

  • Grace

    Sounds like life to me. So many highs, so many lows. It’s what inside, can you go on, yes. It is always yes.

  • Mike

    I am an Engineer under 30. It gets a lot better. Generally, I think that mental preparation for our youth entering, and in college needs to change. Then again, I’m sure there’s not much that will convince an 18 year old they’re not invincible.

    Watching my peers collect thousands of dollars in student loan debt, and degrees that haven’t fostered much professional development in this economy leads me to a more pessimistic view of what parents and educators should be telling kids. Just about 10 years ago, I remember hearing counsellors, educators, and loan officers tell us to shoot for the stars, follow our dreams, that there are means of financing an education that don’t involve remortgaging your house. Upon graduating from college, that we’re going to change the world.

    These are certainly inspiring words, and I am thankful for the opportunities I’ve been afforded because of my education. The reality is life is hard. That it’s a lot harder to change things, than you thought it would be. The engineering and development challenges we are going to face in the next century are going to be daunting.

    Parents should also discuss ROI with education also. “Sure you want to go to Fancy XYZ University for undervalued career path – but you’ll owe $80,000 when you get out – you don’t want that.” What student loan payments are going to look like after college education, though the average 18 year old has little sense of what it takes to run a household.

    An Engineering education should be hard. Should have stress. In the future, you’ll be relied upon to solve problems in a timely manner, with other peoples money. Your failures don’t go away at the end of the next semester. You have to wallow in them and fix them. The consequences are a lot more real also. You can lose your job, which also, typically isn’t the end of the world.

    As far as structural reform? At WPI I found a non-competitve environment. Why? Two reasons: a requirement to work collaboratively in groups, and a non-punitive grading system. You must work with your peers to survive, and if you fail, it’s not the end of the world, because failure doesn’t matter. It’s the pressure relief valve. An employer will never ask you in an interview how many times you took Lin Alg.

  • gentlewomanfarmer

    The missing piece? Alumni and alumna. Those of us who survived and thrived post-MIT. We can help, if only by saying that it gets better.