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At MIT, ‘Portraits of Resilience’ in the face of depression

After several suicides at MIT in 2014 and 2015, professor Daniel Jackson decided to start a column in the university newspaper to encourage students and staff to share their stories about struggles with mental health and depression. That led to a book, “Portraits of Resilience,” that includes those stories with Jackson’s photographs of the person.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

In MIT professor Daniel Jackson’s recent book, “Portraits of Resilience,” being resilient means being vulnerable. It a gives a glimpse into how students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — one of the most competitive and elite universities in the world — cope, overcome, and find meaning in their lives.

The book was born from a weekly column published in the university newspaper, The Tech, during the spring of 2016. The column was launched in response to several suicides at MIT in 2014 and 2015 that left the campus reeling.

Professors and students tried to encourage conversations about mental health and depression. Jackson, a professor of computer science, put up flyers around campus asking people to share their struggles with him for a series in the Tech. He was shocked at the outpouring of stories. Each reflection was a reminder to readers: They were not alone.


“My idea, in short, was to celebrate the people who had experienced either depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges for their resilience in facing up to it,” said Jackson, who is also a photographer. “To recognize they weren’t laggards in our community but they were essentially on the front lines of this modern-day battle.”

“Portraits of Resilience” came out in December. It features Jackson’s black-and-white portraits, as well as brief essays by 22 subjects — students, professors, and staff. Eighteen were first featured in the Tech. A recent $10,000 donation paid for a copy of the book to be given to every member of MIT’s current freshman class in the past few weeks.

Jackson would like the incoming fall class to receive copies as well.

“Coming out in public and being a real person rather than just a statistic seemed to change everything,” Jackson said. “This [column] somehow caused this sort of wave of appreciation and consolation to the students who felt that this wasn’t kind of an anonymous scourge ... there were real people they could talk to about this.


Caterina Colon.Daniel Jackson

In her essay, Caterina Colon, now 24 and a research associate at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, described what it was like to navigate her first semester of college while mourning the death of her mother. She was an only child raised by a single mother in San Juan, Puerto Rico. At the end of her senior year of high school, her mother died of a heart attack in front of her. Colon had just committed to go to MIT. She moved out of the house the same day her mother died.

“One of the biggest lessons I learned was to be way more self-compassionate than I was,” Colon said. “I was so engulfed by everything that I had just been through that I didn’t even appreciate that some of the challenges I was facing I would’ve faced otherwise. I kind of attributed everything to just being sad or being not good enough for school.”

The cluster of suicides happened during Haley Cope’s freshman year.

In her essay, she said the death of a student in her dorm was a wake-up call. Now 21, Cope remembers sitting with others the day after it happened, many students crying over another loss. She herself had been missing class that school year and struggling with depression.

Cope said she had even contemplated suicide, but the loss of the student in her dorm pushed her to get help.


Cope shared her story with Jackson with the hope that others would do the same.

“Seeing how everyone was impacted by this, regardless of their knowledge of the person, was a strong realization of, ‘Oh, there are community webs here and I can’t just fade out of this,’” Cope said. “Realizing if I were so low and wanted to die that much, then I needed to do something about it for the sake of those around me.”

Haley Cope.Daniel Jackson

Cope, who’s majoring in women’s and gender studies, graduates from MIT in June. She met her best friend and now fiance that first year while on suicide watch at McLean Psychiatric Hospital in Belmont. There’s comfort in knowing they met at their lowest moment and still accept and love each other without reservation, Cope said.

When she looks back on that time, she said wishes she’d been more dedicated to therapy and medication.

“All the struggles and difficulties can get better and be sorted out,” Cope said. “There is hope for change.”

A coalition on the Cambridge campus called “Mind Hand Heart” has been holding “Random Acts of Kindness Week” events at MIT.

Faculty, staff, and students have given away free cupcakes and goodie bags, held open mics and events to give students a place to vent and encourage openness and conversation. They’ve funded activities such as a community puzzle in the Math Department where people can gather to hang out, laugh, and enjoy a slice of pizza.


In these ways, the conversation about depression, self-care, and mental health on campus continues.

The responses to the book have been more than Jackson could’ve imagined. One subject, MIT physics professor John Belcher, recently shared with Jackson a message he got from a freshman.

“I just got this book and I read your story,” the student wrote to Belcher. “And it’s because of your story that I’m able to get out of bed this morning.”

Cristela Guerra can be reached at cristela.guerra@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.