Books editor’s blog: coming to terms with personal demons

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is putting student well-being at the forefront of its concerns

January 4, 2018
A bonsai tree with its leaves flying into the air
Source: iStock

When Justin Bullock became suicidally depressed while study­ing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he received a lot of support from his psychiatrist and adviser.

“Honestly,” he says in a forthcoming book called Portraits of Resilience, “MIT has a great mental health system.” Yet he goes on: “Obviously, a lot of it is because there have been so many suicides at MIT. The people who go to MIT are the kind of people who don’t ask for help, are perfectionist, and keep going even when they feel terrible.”

MIT student Haley Cope also recalls feeling suicidal and being admitted to a short-term psychiatric unit: “When I got there, I was wearing my boyfriend’s hoodie, and they took it from me because of the string. I just wanted a nice soft hoodie.”

These are just two of the 22 people photographed and interviewed about their experiences of mental health by Daniel Jackson, a photographer who also works as a professor of computer science at MIT.

“Depression may seem to be an unpromising topic for an uplifting book,” he admits in the introduction, before going on to describe how he had been “encountering depression all around. Every term, ten or more students in my class were seeking advice as they found themselves falling behind – and not due to any lack of talent or commitment.” Meanwhile, the broader “university community struggled to come to terms with a string of suicides and a survey that found that less than half of our students met the criteria for ‘flourishing’ mental health”.

Portraits of Resilience vividly conveys the anguish of depressive illness and the ways that the pressure-cooker atmosphere of elite universities can be a causal factor. Graduate student Tylor Hess was used to feeling as if motivation was “in infinite supply”. When he suddenly realised he had only “a very finite amount of it” and couldn’t get anything done, he had a guilty sense of “disappointing my parents, not living up to my MIT education, and letting down my younger self”. He eventually reached a point where he jumped off a bridge and only managed to struggle to the shore with “numb limbs, slurred speech, tunnel vision”.

There is also another element. People dealing with depression, Jackson suggests, often find solace and meaning in “religious and spiritual engagement”. Yet “people at MIT”, according to Cope, “are inclined to think, ‘Well, religion says these things, like the world is 6,000 years old. That’s obviously stupid.’ They focus less on the aspects that enrich people’s lives.”

MIT and its press are to be congratulated on a book – given out free to all this year’s new students – that not only addresses head on the issue of mental health within higher education but is so frank about how this plays out within its own institution. Yet there is also something “uplifting” about the book, since the testimonies are not only strikingly honest but show many contributors managing to come to terms with their demons. Let us accept Jackson’s invitation to “join in the celebration of adversities conquered” and hope that universities in 2018 do even more to face up to this major challenge.

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