Addressing Student Mental Health Issues at MIT
You see MIT as an enriching environment for students to grow in unique and exciting ways – and in many respects, you’re correct. After all, MIT students find themselves amidst the most influential scientists, innovators, and leaders of today and tomorrow, all in an institution known for its world-class education. However, as the typical onset age of mental illness is between 18 and 24, and one-in-four students lives with some form of diagnosable mental illness, many students struggle with mental health at some point while at MIT. Most do so in silence.
Mental illnesses, unlike most other illnesses, are still shamed and stigmatized, discouraging those living with mental illness from getting help or speaking out about their struggle. In fact, as many as two-thirds of students who could benefit from professional help don’t get it. And, although mental illnesses can be extremely difficult to live with, many of those struggling with them manage to nearly completely hide their struggles from those around them – even their closest friends and family. Stanford University refers to this concept as “duck syndrome,” likening the illusion students create of effortless success, despite actually feeling distraught or overwhelmed, to the illusion ducks create of peacefully gliding on a pond while actually paddling frantically. When nobody appears to be suffering from a mental illness – as relatively few cases of mental illness are readily apparent – it can pressure others to maintain a facade of composure to the detriment of their well-being.
Over the last 10 years, a non-profit organization, called Active Minds, has fought the stigma surrounding mental illness and discussions around mental well-being by empowering students to educate and advocate for themselves and their peers.
Today, over 400 chapters nationwide and outside the United States have embraced this charge and have worked toward a world where people with mental illness are accepted instead of shamed.
As student mental health advocates on campus, it is our responsibility to increase the faculty’s awareness of the pressures that students are regularly subjected to and the sometimes detrimental effects of these pressures. MIT students are a unique breed – we strive to exceed expectations and achieve perfection. While this quality allows us to achieve great things, it also makes us extremely vulnerable to feeling inadequate when we cannot meet our own high standards. During a semester at MIT, an undergraduate student will typically take four-to-seven classes and also participate in various extracurriculars including sports, music groups, volunteer organizations, and more. Students are skilled jugglers – managing commitments in their classes, activities, and relationships by any means necessary – often neglecting their own well-being in the process.
MIT students are provided with a multitude of resources assisting them in traversing the difficulties of MIT. While students are told of all the resources during orientation, many students forget or are reluctant to reach out. If you are knowledgeable about these services and remind students about them when necessary (or through your class syllabus), students will feel more comfortable accessing them when they need it most.
One direct resource students can use is Student Support Services (S^3). When personal or medical circumstances arise and students miss work or exams, S^3 is the intermediary between the student and the faculty, with S^3 deans writing notes to excuse the students from missed work and working with them to schedule a timeline for makeups.
Another direct resource for students is MIT Mental Health and Counseling, the branch of MIT Medical best equipped to help students who are feeling overwhelmed or unhappy. The clinicians at MIT Mental Health and Counseling devote their time to working one-on-one with students to remediate whatever personal issues they are facing and move forward to a healthier life.
If you are concerned about a particular student and want to reach out to someone, we suggest you speak to their academic administrators and academic advisors. These administrators and advisors work directly with the students in their department and know how to reach out to other resources like S^3 and Mental Health when their students are in need of help.
Keeping in mind these, and other, resources that are available to students will allow you to step in and help if you ever suspect a student is struggling.
While it’s nearly impossible to get through MIT without stress, we believe it is essential for students to recognize the fine line between healthy stress and greater issues requiring attention. As faculty, you can help by reminding students that they can, and should, prioritize their mental health and well-being. We hope that with increased effort and awareness on the part of both students and faculty, MIT can foster an accepting environment where students are able to speak openly and be supported in seeking help for mental illness.