Suicides force MIT health overhaul

September 21, 2001

After at least ten suicides in as many years, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has admitted problems with its campus healthcare system.

MIT's action comes as US students admit to greater stress. A study by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles found that more than 30 per cent of first-year students report feeling "frequently overwhelmed", up from 16 per cent in 1985.

Other US universities have begun paying closer attention to their students' mental health. One has instituted a "suicide awareness week". Another keeps track of students believed to be at risk.

But critics complain that most schools still do too little about this problem. They say MIT - considered one of the most high-pressure universities in America - agreed to expand its mental-health services only because the families of two students who committed suicide were threatening legal action.

A report by an MIT committee set up to study the problem found that the number of mental-health specialists at the university had remained constant since 1995, while visits by students increased 60 per cent.

"When other schools have increased their staff, MIT has lagged behind, ranking seventh of nine comparable select schools," the report says.

Among other shortcomings, MIT did not offer mental-health services outside business hours.

In response to the report, chancellor Phillip L. Clay ordered on-campus mental health services to be extended until 7pm on most weekdays and assigned physicians, counsellors and health-care professionals to work with groups of resident students in the evening as well as during the day. The school extended its health benefits to include unlimited off-campus outpatient mental-health treatment.

"We know that most people in the MIT community have extraordinarily busy schedules. We are going to make it easier for students and staff to get the care they need, when they need it," said medical director William Kettyle.

But students at schools such as MIT appear slow to seek help. The committee report noted that of 263 students who returned surveys, 74 per cent reported having had an emotional problem that interfered with their daily lives, but only 28 per cent took advantage of the school's mental-health services, preferring to discuss their emotional problems first with family or friends.

"I think that the most defining thing about MIT students is that they are all 'the best'," one told the committee anonymously. "They never needed help before, and they sure don't need help now."

The school's commitment to preventing students from taking their own lives was almost immediately tested when one student's family demanded an inquiry into the events leading up to her suicide.

It took three months for MIT to agree to investigate the case, in which the student filed a harassment complaint against a fellow student who was stalking her. It was because the school took little action in response to her complaint, her family believes, that she swallowed a fatal dose of cyanide in April.

MIT said it would not release the results of the investigation.

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