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MIT Deaths Recast Spotlight On Student Suicide

Cornell University students cross the college's Thurston Avenue Bridge in Ithaca, N.Y. in 2010, a year that saw three students there fall from campus bridges. (AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth)

Cornell University students cross the college's Thurston Avenue Bridge in Ithaca, N.Y. in 2010, a year that saw three students there fall from campus bridges. (AP Photo/Heather Ainsworth)

Satto Tonegawa was the son of a Nobel-winning professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Funny and cool and beyond-belief smart,” is how his mother described him to The Boston Globe. Satto started his freshman year this fall at MIT. But on October 25, just five days before his 19th birthday, his body was discovered in his dorm-room, dead of asphyxiation.

Nicolas Del Castillo was a sophomore pursuing a math major at MIT, but three days before classes were set to start this year, Nicolas retreated to his room and hanged himself.

Two suicides in two months. “We’re in pain,” chancellor Eric Grimson told the Globe today. “I don’t think we’re every emotionally prepared to deal with something like this.”

MIT is reeling, but it is certainly not alone. Every year, 10 to 15 percent of college students seriously contemplate suicide. When a national survey asked universities if they’re seeing an increase in the number and severity of students with mental health problems, a staggering 90 percent said yes.

So today, we’re going to talk about it. If you’re a college student, or an administrator, a resident advisor, professor, or if you’re a parent … have you seen this rise of mental health struggles on campus? What makes those freshman and sophomore years so delicate and critical and difficult? What have universities done to help? What haven’t they done? And how can we move forward to reduce the number of students who might fall through the cracks?

Guests:

  • Divya Srinivasan, co-president, Active Minds at MIT.
  • Larry Kohn, director of development, Boston University’s Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation.
  • Victor Schwartz, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Yeshiva University and co-editor of “Mental Health Care in the College Community”
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  • Anonymous

    People really need to wake up…   Statistically there are (and have been for years) more Suicides than Homicides every year.

    So, this isn’t news.  It’s just something we as a culture refuse to focus on.

    It is not unusual to find suicides at schools either.  Especially schools outside of the US where there is even more pressure on students. 

    Pressure on students has gotten to be out of control here in the US though.  Too many students demanding to be in school and ever increasing tuition rates makes the grades you get while you are in school even more important.  Who can afford to spend $50,000  a year and get a C in a 3 credit class?

    Personally I feel that we should go back to the way it was when only the best 10% of High School graduates went to college and instead of college, Corporations offered internships to High School graduates and trained them themselves.  Why should every High School graduate have to go $200,000 in debt to get a job that really only requires 1-2 years of Job Related training?  Even so-called High Tech jobs really don’t require a degree, but instead focused training and imersion.

  • MM

    Larry Kohn made an important comment: universities are like small cities. It is very difficult to balance the need to provide students with support services beyond academics with the cost of higher education. When institutions are vilified for rising tuition, people need to consider the cost of providing a host of professionals in non-academic services, too.

  • http://www.fibrowitch.net Jan Dumas

    I wonder if those two students would have been better served to have delayed entering college for a year or two?  Or instead of living in a dorm have lived at home, or in some kind of half way setting. Not quite a dorm, but not with a parent?

  • ALM

    A comment was made that the schools have a hard time affording student care.  Professor salaries and assistant teaching positions are a large reason for the increases in tuition.  The average pay is around 125,000. at BU.  and up to 80,000. for assistant positions.  I can’t imagine the amount of money students put into these universities that the schools can’t afford to spend a bit more on mental health professionals.  But perhaps that’s not even going to help.  Kids these days are realizing schools don’t always have their needed answers.  Trust is lost when the fear of money being spent, success and the money to be made is a driving force.  A loss of self creates this fear.  A true search for meaning should be bolstered by education not dependent on it.  And then there is always the more mysterious aspects of suicide.  Can it even be understood?  But feeling like a statistic when protests much about a jobless nation and overwhelming student debt certainly won’t help a lost soul. 

    • Najones55

      As someone who has taught at a number of colleges and universities in the Boston area, I can testify that the salary figures named above are not accurate.  I have NEVER heard of a teaching assistant being paid $80,000 a year, whether in the sciences or the humanities, and just a few years ago assistant professors were being paid less than $50,000 in many institutions.   Certainly the instructors, teaching assistants, and untenured faculty, who often have the most contact with 1st and 2nd-year students, are not paid at the levels claimed above.  Many are paid  below the amount required for undergraduate tuition and board.  Find your scapegoat elsewhere.

  • EM

    I wish I had heard this story when it aired.  My son just withdrew from school last week (as a freshman) because he was suffering badly from depression. As the first two months of school progressed, he gradually reached a point where he was not able to get up for early classes, eventually missing most classes, rarely went to meals, slept all day and suffered from insomnia at night — textbook case.  Fortunately, he was communicating with us (his parents), and we recognized the signs and sent him to the student health center in October, before it reached it’s worst point.  However, there he was screened and scheduled for a therapy appointment — in late November.  Unfortunately we had no choice but to suggest he come home — or possibly have a tragedy on our hands.  These health professionals aren’t like “university employees” whose availability is limited by tuition dollars- -our insurance was in force and therapy would have been fully covered.  If this is such a major issue, why aren’t schools staffed to accommodate? 

  • psych_intern

    Some ideas to prevent student suicides:

    1) limit the number of courses a student can take per semester.  If a limit already exists, then reduce the existing limit.
    2) lower the number of credits students need to graduate or increase the number of semesters students need to take in order to graduate (without increasing tuition).
    3) lower the number of assignments and readings required of students per class.  I’m a graduate student and the amount of reading that is assigned is humanly impossible to complete.
    4) increase the instructor to student ratio so that instructors get to know their students
    5) encourage students to take breaks
    6) don’t allow freshmen or sophomores to live alone
    7) require every incoming and existing student fill out a mental health assessment questionnaire that includes a question about having suicidal thoughts and mental health history
    8) provide group therapy with other students
    9) require instructors to inform the school (or counseling office) when a student has missed x-number of classes

     

  • Tallg2425

    It is important for students who may have a history of depression to get connected with a mental health care provider close to campus before arriving to school.  This will help students feel a sense of stability during stressful times at school.

  • B.

    as someone who attempted suicide as a freshman college student in large boston-based university, PLAESE:

    1) choose research assistants or house masters who are unbiased and not just “cool” but are mature, responsible, and involved with each of his/her residents and are not just interacting with a selected few they like to “hang out” with.
    2) have faculty advisers be more involved and personally invested in each of their students, by sending out at least a monthly email to them; they are often the ones who can make a really big difference, especially for students whose move to college is their first big move away from home and are in need of a parent-like figure nearby.
    3) have the university administrators ensure points 1 and 2 are being implemented and not overburden research assistants, house masters, or faculty advisors so they can take the time needed for these life-saving strategies to be executed.
    4) have the university selectively choose and supervise the mental health staff available at university health services; sometimes mental health professionals become overconfident over the years and are certain that a student fits a particular “profile” and erroneously conclude he or she is not at risk of suicide; i know personally many of my friends and classmates who sought help from campus-based mental health facilities were turned away, just because they were not open re: their depression and suicidal thoughts during their initial meeting and therefore were told they were just going through “the normal stress of college” and to practice some stress reducing exercises.

    the above seems logical and obvious, yet it’s just not implemented at these universities, and the parents who send their children away are unaware of this too and trust that their children are being looked after. this was the case of my parents, and they are not bad parents; i am very close to them but when your mental state is contemplating suicide, your are stripped of all logic and actually believe that keeping your parents in the dark is the best for them because you love them and don’t want to hurt them. it is then that is crucial for those in physical proximity to the students, like RAs, faculty, and peers to intervene. the truth is that many students who are severely depressed never seek mental health professionals on campus, because even making that initial appointment takes too much effort or they just feel that it will not make a difference, and because of this too it is crucial for professors, resident assistants or housemasters, and peers to pick up on the state of all the students around them things.

    i’m truly saddened by the loss of these two students and others.

  • B.

    i am sorry for the typos on my previous post. i meant resident assistants not research assistants.

  • MF

    A daily lunch-optional drop-in support group should meet every day at every college, moderated by one of the counseling staff.  Students should be asked to join the group before making major decisions such as withdrawal from college, or any other serious decision.  It sounds like communication with others would greatly ameliorate this problem.  Daily support groups would be time-effective for students and cost-effective for schools, with no bureaucracy impeding access.

  • Richard Maxwell

    I survived a Freshman year at MIT in the mid ’50s.  I was the top graduate among
    800 high school seniors and won a scholarship to MIT which my august recruiters
    represented as a warm, cooperative, social organization comprising very bright
    people who really cared about one another.  Nothing could have been further from
    the truth.   After only two weeks I wanted to leave but felt I would be disappointing
    my family.  I finished out this depressing, miserable year of my life in the upper
    half of my class.  I was a physics major and my one “triumph” was solving, in only three  
    steps, an exam problem designed to be solved in 12 to 15 steps.  Much to my
    absence of surprise, I was rewarded, not by kudos, but by unwelcome stares
    and comments by both my “peers” and professors.  There was a discussion about
    whether my insight (using Kepler’s planetary ratios) was “legitimate”.  A great
    book title would be GALILEO’S DEPRESION.  This discussion seems to ignore
    reality’s aversion to people in a viciously competitive system who solve
    a problem “too well”.   It also ignores the phenomenon of “traumatic deidealization”
    posited in 1990 by the medical ethicist, Jerald Kay in his paper on how medical
    students are pummeled into cynicism.  There was a book published in the ’90s
    titled TALKING ABOUT LEAVING.  It discusses the problem created by the
    institution of a weed-out process in the first two years at places like Caltech and
    MIT.   The deans who created the process were upset that too many at the top
    chose to be “weeded-out” and not enough at the bottom. 
    Let’s stop bashing all suicides as mentally ill.  George Steiner said it best:  “Perhaps
    anyone who focused on the breakdown of moral meaning in the modern world
    could not endure to live.”

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