CAMBRIDGE, Mass. On a recent sunny spring day, MIT students were lined up at a table grabbing ice cream sundaes, milk and cookies, and, if they were interested, an embrace.
“Yes, giving away ice cream and now hugs,” explained MIT parent Sonal Patel, of Cambridge, as she embraced Miguel Mendez, a native of Mexico who is doing post-doctoral research at MIT.
“It’s always good to know that people around the campus actually care about you as a person,” Mendez said. “This being an institution that expects a lot from you, it can really pass a toll on you sometimes.”
The event was billed as “Stress Less Day,” a chance for people at the university that churns out many of the world’s top engineers and scientists to take a break from problem sets, exams and research.
The snack break was sponsored by the student group Active Minds, which promotes mental health awareness. Volunteers handed out flyers with facts on depression and anxiety, as well mental health resources at MIT.
Following six student suicides since March 2014, Active Minds and other student groups have seen increased interest in their events designed to reduce stress, promote a sense of community and reduce stigma.
MIT is not the only higher education institution to struggle with suicide clusters. But the school and its students, widely considered among the world’s most elite, are taking some very open steps to confront the problem.
‘Everyone’s Used To Being A Perfectionist’
Some at MIT say a lot of the pressure that exists is self-imposed by ultracompetitive and successful students.
“There’s no way to avoid stress in a place like this, where most kids were like the valedictorians of their school,” said sophomore mechanical engineering major Matt Ossa. “So there’s really no way, because everyone’s used to being a perfectionist and all that.”
‘Suicide: A Crisis In The Shadows’
Ossa, who’s from San Antonio, says at one point when he was feeling overwhelmed he went to Student Support Services, known as “S3” or “S Cubed.” That’s where academic deans help students with a range of issues, from deciding whether they should seek mental health care, to looking for some leeway from professors during a particularly jam-packed week — which Ossa got.
“I was able to get, like, a few tests pushed back a couple days, stuff like that,” Ossa said. “They’re really willing to work with people as long as they reach out. That’s the hardest thing, is getting people to reach out.”
Academic Pressure Not Always A Factor
But one thing often overlooked when an elite college has a cluster of suicides is that academic pressure may not have played a role in some of the deaths. Mental health professionals say a combination of factors — including mental illness — is usually to blame for suicide.
“There’s actually no empirical evidence at this point that schools that are more competitive or more pressured actually have higher rates of suicide deaths than other colleges,” explained Dr. Victor Schwartz, medical director of the Jed Foundation, which helps colleges improve their suicide prevention and mental health programming.
But MIT has gone through periods when its suicide rate is higher than the national average, including last year and this year.
“We should be careful about not reaching conclusions that we really don’t have evidence to support,” Schwartz said. “In fact, with undergraduates the information we have suggests more that suicidal behavior is more often associated with relationship or family problems.”
The father of late 18-year-old MIT freshman Matthew Nehring, who killed himself March 1, says he learned after his son’s death that he had sought help from an MIT psychiatrist in January because he was “preoccupied with thoughts of life and death” he had had since childhood — thoughts he never revealed to his family. Nehring indicated to the doctor he was not suicidal, according to his father. He wrote a letter saying his suicide had nothing to do with the stress of school work.
Four days after Nehring’s death, another MIT freshman, Christina Tournant, died by suicide while home in Florida. According to published reports, she suffered from a physical disease that caused debilitating chronic pain, and she left behind messages to her family that she “couldn’t keep fighting.”
The father of Eliana Hechter, a student in the joint MIT/Harvard graduate program in health sciences and technology, tells us Hechter took her life last spring a month after being devastated by her mother’s sudden death from cancer.
Though every suicide is unique, Schwartz says MIT has some specific challenges.
“It’s a very, very disparate population. You have a large population of grad students, of international students,” Schwartz said. “So I think one of the challenges there is creating a sense of connectedness and community.”
That would help reduce isolation, which can contribute to suicide. And Schwartz says the Jed Foundation is working with MIT and other schools to improve communication between residence hall leaders, academic advisers and campus mental health counselors about specific students who are struggling — to the extent it’s legal under privacy laws.
But these aren’t new issues for MIT. In 2001, then-President Charles Vest commissioned a mental health task force following a series of suicides over the previous decade. The group issued a report and detailed recommendations for improving mental health care and awareness on campus. MIT says “nearly all” of the recommendations were adopted.
In 2006, the university settled a wrongful death lawsuit stemming from one of those earlier deaths, and it faces another suit related to a suicide in 2009. In both cases, the families claimed people at MIT knew of their children’s mental health issues and didn’t respond properly.
The school denied our requests for interviews with Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart and the head of the mental health service, saying those people are engaged in the work at hand and can’t be pulled away from it.
The Issue Of ‘Impostor Syndrome’
After the two most recent suicides in March, the MIT administration organized gatherings to remember the students and foster conversation.
Freshman Annamarie Bair was one of hundreds of students who attended.
“I think just the idea that someone in our grade was feeling such pain to go through something like this, it’s just really hard,” she said.
The chancellor and provost also emailed faculty urging them to be flexible with students, to give them a break on tests and assignments, and talk with them about their feelings.
“I think you can always do more. But I think MIT does a good job at what they do,” said John Belcher, who has taught physics at MIT for 44 years.
Belcher applauds the institute for making Student Support Services easily accessible and unintimidating. He says he’s referred many students there because they were struggling academically or emotionally.
Belcher and other professors are now particularly attuned to the issue of “impostor syndrome” — a feeling that students, or even professors, can have that they must be at MIT by mistake.
“I think impostor syndrome is a real effect here at MIT. The students come in and they tend to think that they’re the dumbest student here and everybody else is brighter,” Belcher said. “And when they get into trouble, they don’t realize that other people are struggling with the same thing.”
And Belcher can speak from experience about mental illness. He openly tells students and colleagues of having had clinical depression 25 years ago, and the fact that the anti-depressant Prozac has stabilized him since then.
“I was very depressed, but it was a minor blip in my medical history,” he said. “I’ve had cancer twice. Those were major blips.”
The professor is helping Active Minds organize a campus-wide awareness campaign to launch in the fall, centered on the theme that struggling is part of life and it’s OK to ask for help.
The group also promotes simple steps students can take to care for themselves and set limits.
“I have found that I love sleep and I need sleep and I need some restful awake time,” says MIT junior Ariella Yosafat, the president of Active Minds. “And I think a lot of MIT students come to that point where they realize that, ‘Oh, I don’t need to be taking six classes and I don’t need to be doing five extra-curriculars to fit in at MIT. I can take four classes. I can be really, you know, heavily into this one thing and that’s OK.'”
It’s the students who don’t get that message and don’t reach out for help who worry her.
Resources: You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and the Samaritans Statewide Hotline at 1-877-870-HOPE (4673)