May / June 2007
In the hours and days following the killings at Virginia Tech, our community began to react, especially our student population. At first, students were sad, shocked, and some were confused. But soon after, they began to experience other symptoms - from feeling physically unwell, to having trouble concentrating or sleeping, to being more irritable or lonesome. As one might expect, the reaction in the MIT community was not immediate. As is often the case, more immediate stresses and concerns overshadowed the feelings about the tragedy. Although the effort to compartmentalize pain is a normal one, this psychological effort is only partially successful.
The news coverage and blog correspondence about Virginia Tech became more intense and constant. Videos made by the student responsible for the killings were explicit and frightening. This violence and irrationality naturally made many people frightened and confused about human nature, and uncertain about how safe we are in our own worlds. Within days, our campus was confronted with two additional tragedies – the deaths of two undergraduates. Those in our community who knew and loved these two students suffered the most immediate pain of loss and shock. “How can all these terrible things happen?” students and parents wondered. Our students always try to make sense out of things, and yet, in these cases, our creative intellectual skills seemed not to provide much help.
Feelings of sadness, helplessness, guilt, responsibility, and profound confusion appeared in student e-mails, blogs, and in residence-hall conversations. Fascination with violence, death, and pain also appeared in communications.
Many of us, some parents ourselves, felt afraid for our loved ones and, perhaps, for ourselves.
In responding to tragedies such as these, we know that wounds and hurts from the past, many long forgotten, can become reactivated and affect us. This includes any of us who have been victims of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, family violence, as well as those whose families have been victims of political oppression, torture, or gang violence.
Faculty can expect that a substantial number of students, and some colleagues, will be less efficient, less organized, and less productive over the next several weeks and months as we mourn for those we know and those we did not know. I suggest that faculty members make a special effort to pay attention to students and colleagues, and to actively inquire about how others are doing. It is an especially good time for departments, labs, and residences to have food around, and to provide opportunities for people to gather informally.
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In the past several years, we have made substantive changes in our Mental Health Services at MIT. We made it simpler for someone to meet with a mental health clinician. Increased access, walk-in hours, and more community outreach have allowed more students, faculty, and staff to talk with us. Clinicians in Mental Health have worked with our colleagues in Student Life and other departments to improve communication and collaboration to help identify students in distress.
Faculty, administrative officers, and departmental administrators know their students well. I encourage them to pay close attention to their own intuitive reactions to students. If you have a feeling that someone is having difficulties, it is important to listen to your own reactions. Please talk with others in your department to see if they share your concerns or have noticed any changes in the student’s demeanor or performance.
We do not expect faculty to function as mental health clinicians, but rather as the sensitive educators that they are. That’s why we encourage all faculty, administrative officers, and departmental administrators to contact a clinician in Mental Health (x3-2916) with any concerns.
A phone consultation is always available. We will talk things through with you and figure out, together, what the best next step might be.
We encourage you to refer to the booklet “for MIT faculty, How to Help Students in Distress” which is available on the MIT Medical Website at: web.mit.edu/medical/pdf/faculty_brochure.pdf. This booklet describes signs and symptoms that may indicate a student in distress. These include:
Academic indicators, such as unusual absences; decline in performance; unusual requests for extensions; changes in concentration or motivation; papers with unusual themes of depression, hopelessness, anger.
Physical/Psychological indicators, such as a decline in usual hygiene; changes in weight; overall impression of being depressed, withdrawn; change in social behavior in class and lab; more isolative; irritability.
If you have any concerns or questions – even if you are not sure of their importance or relevance – please call me directly or the clinician on call at x3-2916. It is essential that anyone who is worried about a student (or a colleague) not keep that worry to themselves. Effective communication and collaboration among all of us are the best ways to help anyone in our community who is in distress.
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The Mental Health Service has recently initiated two new programs of interest:
This project, which involves a consortium of MIT and 5 other universities (Cornell University, Harvard University, Princeton University, Columbia University, and the University of Rochester) uses some of the successful strategies employed in the United States Air Force Suicide Prevention Program and applies them to a university setting. The Air Force program emphasizes the importance of community and protective social networks in preventing suicide, the second leading cause of death in college students. In a 1994 report of the program’s first 10 years, the Air Force noted a significant reduction in suicide rates, homicide rates, and moderate-to-severe domestic violence.
At MIT, this project seeks to expand the stakeholder training experiences that we have offered to the community, so that all segments of the Institute community can learn about depression and risk factors for suicide and violence, with the dual goals of learning how to recognize symptoms and how to help. This inclusive approach centers on all members of our community caring for each other.
This project was developed by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in cooperation with Emory University. Introduced at Emory several years ago, this online screening process reaches out to students who may be reluctant to seek mental health care. Because such students are usually hesitant to make their problems known, they have become an important population on which to concentrate mental health outreach activities. Since our graduate students tend to be less connected with the larger MIT community, we have begun this project with outreach to this group of students..
Our outreach starts with e-mail invitations that are sent to groups of graduate students (1500 to date) requesting their participation in an anonymous mental health screening survey. The survey is brief and easy to complete. Based on a depression screening survey used in primary care medical settings, we have used focus groups to help us make the questions more relevant to our student population. The survey has two goals: 1) to educate students about depression and stress in general, and the availability of mental health treatment at MIT Medical; and 2) to identify students at higher risk and attempt to actively engage them in treatment.
Once the surveys have been completed, each student’s questionnaire is scored and a clinician from our Mental Health Service is alerted to the results. Students who score in the range indicating depression are invited to come in for an interview. They can also communicate anonymously, via e-mail, with a clinician who can try to help them via e-mail or try to persuade them to come into the clinic for a meeting. We send responses with different levels of urgency depending upon the level of depression indicated by the survey, so we can quickly help the students who most urgently need help. Our data indicate that about twice as many MIT students are responding to the survey than at other institutions using this specific methodology. Initial data indicate that this approach engages students who are at risk, and who are not known to our mental health staff.
Faculty or administrators with any concerns about a student, please call x3-2916 anytime for a consultation.
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