After Suicides, MIT Works To Relieve Student Pressure : NPR Ed In the past year, four students have died by suicide. The school has responded by asking professors to lighten workloads and is launching new suicide prevention efforts.
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After Suicides, MIT Works To Relieve Student Pressure

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After Suicides, MIT Works To Relieve Student Pressure

After Suicides, MIT Works To Relieve Student Pressure

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In the last 14 months, six MIT students and one professor have committed suicide. It's been a painful time for students and administrators. While the school is hardly alone in struggling with this issue, its rate of student suicide is higher than the national average for campuses. Lynn Jolicoeur of member station WBUR sent this report.

LYNN JOLICOEUR, BYLINE: On a sunny spring day at MIT in Cambridge, Mass...

SONAL PATEL: We have milk. We have one percent, fat-free, soy milk and almond milk.

JOLICOEUR: Students are lined up at a table grabbing ice cream sundaes, milk and cookies. And if they're interested, an embrace from MIT parents, including Sonal Patel.

PATEL: Yes, giving away ice cream and now hugs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I want a hug. That'll be good.

PATEL: Hi, hi.


JOLICOEUR: The event, billed as Stress Less Day, is sponsored by the student mental health awareness group Active Minds. Volunteers are handing-out flyers listing mental health facts and campus resources. Sophomore Matt Ossa picks up an ice cream and rushes on.

MATT OSSA: Like, obviously there's no way to avoid stress in a place like this where, like, most kids were like, the valedictorians at their school. It's 'cause everyone's used to being a perfectionist and all that.

JOLICOEUR: But Ossa says once when he was feeling overwhelmed, he went to student support services. That's where academic deans help students take the first step toward mental health care or ask professors for leeway during a really jam-packed week, something Ossa got. But on some of the six MIT student suicides in the last 14 months, academic pressure may not have played a major role, if any. Mental health professionals say a combination of factors, including mental illness, is usually to blame for suicide. Victor Schwartz is medical director of the JED Foundation, which helps colleges improve their suicide prevention programming.

VICTOR SCHWARTZ: 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.

JOLICOEUR: MIT has gone through times when its suicide rate is higher than the national average though, including last year and this year.

SCHWARTZ: With undergraduates, the information we have suggests more that suicidal behavior is more often associated with relationship or family problems.

JOLICOEUR: Among the MIT students who most recently killed themselves, one had a disease that caused debilitating chronic pain, according to published reports. Another had recently sought help from an MIT psychiatrist for troubling thoughts about death he had never revealed to his parents, and another was devastated by her mother's sudden passing, their families tell us. Though every suicide is unique, Schwartz, from the JED Foundation, says MIT has some specific challenges.

SCHWARTZ: You have a large population of grad students, of international students. I think one of the challenges there is creating a sense of connectedness and community.

JOLICOEUR: MIT denied our request for interviews with the chancellor 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. After the recent suicides, administrators organized gatherings to foster conversation and urged professors to give students a break and talk with them about their feelings. Professors are now particularly attuned to the issue of imposter syndrome - a feeling students can have that they must have gotten into MIT by mistake.

JOHN BELCHER: I think imposter syndrome is a real effect here at MIT.

JOLICOEUR: John Belcher has taught physics at MIT for 44 years.

BELCHER: The students come in and they're surrounded by very bright students. They tend to think that they're the dumbest student here and everybody else is brighter. And when they get into trouble, they don't realize that other people are struggling with the same things.

JOLICOEUR: Belcher has talked openly with students about having had clinical depression. He's helping Active Minds organize a campaign with a theme that struggling is part of life and it's OK to ask for help. The group also encourages students to simply take care of themselves and set limits. MIT junior Ariella Yosafat is the Active Minds president.

ARIELLA YOSAFAT: I have found that I love sleep (laughter) and I need sleep, and I need some restful awake time. 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.

JOLICOEUR: It's the students who don't get that message and don't reach out for help who worry her. For NPR News, I'm Lynn Jolicoeur in Cambridge, Mass.

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