In wake of suicides, MIT bolsters mental health services
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has announced a series of measures to bolster mental health services and other campus support, a move that followed soul-searching across the school after four suicides in the span of a year.
Starting this academic year, the Cambridge school will provide more mental health counselors, create a drop-in center for students to talk with professionals, and make it easier for students to seek professional services off campus.
The changes come after campus officials reviewed the results of a survey administered to students in April and May, which found that 24 percent of undergraduate respondents have been diagnosed with one or more mental health disorders by a health professional.
In interviews with the Globe earlier this year following the suicides, including two in one month, MIT students reflected on the immense pressure they often face. Much of it, they said, is self-imposed.
Last semester, professors eased up on students by making some homework optional as the campus community grieved, and students said they and their peers opened up more about their struggles.
The recent survey gathered data on everything from exercise, binge drinking, and smoking to support from the academic environment and students’ knowledge of and satisfaction with mental health service.
MIT made the results public Wednesday.
According to the survey, 11 percent of undergraduate students and 13 percent of graduate students reported being depressed, and 10 percent of undergraduate students and 6 percent of graduate students reported contemplating suicide. Those numbers are slightly below the national average, something chancellor Cynthia Barnhart said should help erase a public stereotype that mental health issues are worse at MIT than at other colleges.
In addition, 21 percent of undergraduates reported nonsuicidal self-injury, which is slightly above the national average.
The survey, overseen by the Jed and Clinton Foundation Health Matters Campus Program and performed at 18 other colleges nationwide, was offered to all 10,000 MIT undergraduates and graduates; 3,000 responded.
The results helped the school craft a short- and long-term plan to help students, staff, and faculty, said Barnhart, who is rolling out the new programs along with MIT medical director William Kettyle.
“We really view this as the next logical step for us in our continuing process to address mental health and well-being on our campus,” Barnhart said.
In the survey, MIT student respondents also said they know where to get help but called for more staffing and walk-in hours.
One fact the chancellor said stuck with her was the top two reasons why students don’t seek help: because they prefer to deal with problems on their own and because they don’t think their needs are very serious.
In addition to extra staff, MIT will also add an online request form for appointments with mental health professionals and train an additional 40 students as peer advisors.
“We know that we can never be complacent,” Barnhart said.
The campus is rolling out an initiative called MindHandHeart, intended to improve coordination between existing mental health and counseling services.
The university also has various public awareness campaigns, including one called “It’s OK to ask for help.” Last year it ran a successful initiative called “Tell Me About Your Day,” distributing bracelets to students bearing the acronym TMAYD.
The chancellor said she was heartened by other facts the survey turned up: Most MIT students who responded to the survey got eight or more hours of sleep per night, and three-quarters of respondents said they have friends who try to help them.
MIT senior Rachel Davis, whom the Globe interviewed in March about stress-related issues on campus, said Thursday she hopes the measures will work.
“I think that the new changes will help, but they will not solve all problems on campus,’’ said Davis, who moved off campus this year as a way to help herself relax. “A huge problem is the self-pressure and self-expectations set by the students, as well as a lack of awareness that it is OK to fail. One needs to fail to succeed.”