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MIT staff blogger Matt McGann '00

Talking about a difficult subject by Matt McGann '00

Answering an FAQ.

Every so often, during the Q&A portion of an MIT information session, I am asked a question like this: Is it true that MIT has the highest suicide rate? The answer to that question is: No, this is not true; in fact, MIT is better than the national average1. However, this is a serious question, and it deserves a longer response.

The reality is that today’s MIT is a warm and friendly community with many support resources. Most people who come to MIT are happy, well-adjusted people, and leave MIT as happy, well-adjusted people. That’s not to say that MIT is never hard or stressful; certainly, MIT’s rigorous curriculum will lead to some hair-pulling by even the brightest students. But in the rare cases of students taking their own lives at MIT and places like it, the causes — to the extent they can be determined — are almost never academically related. Usually, it is related to personal problems or preexisting mental health issues.

I think some people assume that MIT must have a high suicide rate because it is an academically rigorous school where most students study science and engineering. This shows a lack of understanding of suicide. Neither academic rigor nor course of study are among the top risk factors noted for suicide2. Also note in the article below:

We also know that elite colleges do not have higher rates of suicide than others. Academic competition and pressures are not frequent precipitants of suicide in undergraduates. More often, suicide is precipitated by family or relationship problems, often in the context of substance use.

The assumption may also come in part from two heavily publicized deaths at MIT nearly ten years ago; most suicides at colleges are not heavily publicized. (See also this year — a number of suicides at “famous” schools made the news; thousands of other suicides at colleges went mostly unmentioned.) These deaths at MIT occured around the time I was finishing my undergraduate years on campus and beginning as a staff member; many of us were deeply saddened by the loss of our schoolmates. As a result, MIT reexamined its own practices and culture. MIT didn’t brush this under the rug; the report was made public. You can read it here.

Earlier this year, the folks at Inside Higher Ed published an important article on suicide on college campuses. It is well worth a read:


Suicide Realities
April 22, 2010
By Victor Schwartz and Jerald Kay

The recent suicides of college students at Yale and Cornell Universities are rightfully cause for shock and sadness, but also a call to action. No doubt, we wonder how young people with so much talent and promise could end their own lives. In struggling to make sense of these tragic events, it is all too appealing – and unhelpful – to resort to simple explanations and casting of blame. In fact, the science of suicide is highly complex, and suicide prediction and prevention present mental health clinicians, and college administrators, with formidable challenges. Even institutions with quality prevention services, like Cornell and Yale, are not immune from these calamities.

Consider that, after accident, suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. It is estimated that in any given year approximately 7.5 suicides occur for every 100,000 college students, a figure that translates into some 1,400 suicides. Nevertheless, while any death of a young person is heartbreaking, suicides are numerically rare.

At the same time, we know from our own work and much other research that each year about 10 to 15 percent of college students seriously think about suicide, and approximately 2 to 4 percent will make an attempt. This means that for every college student who dies by suicide, there are hundreds who have tried and thousands who have thought about it. Yet, we still have no overarching psychological theory to explain exactly what moves someone from thinking about suicide to taking action.

We do know that most young people who die by suicide have a diagnosable, and often treatable, psychiatric condition, and, frequently, they have told someone of their plan. Regrettably, numerous studies have found that less than 50 percent of depressed college students seek help. And not all manifest obvious signs of their depression.

Recent research has shown that the brain continues to mature throughout one’s 20s, with the area most responsible for decision-making developing last. Some young people, therefore, may act impulsively, without fully appreciating the real consequences of their actions. As a result, suicide in young people sometimes occurs without any apparent warning, either in a setting in which the young person — most often a young man — has hidden his despair from others, or as the result of an abrupt and intense impulse, often in the context of judgment-blurring intoxication.

Despite this, it is important to keep the issues in perspective. While universities are seeing larger numbers of students with psychiatric difficulties — in part because improvements in treatment make it possible for more students with such problems to successfully attend college – the number of suicides on campuses has remained stable over the past 10 years. This suggests that we may be doing a better job at identifying and treating the underlying causes of suicide, such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and substance abuse.

We also know that elite colleges do not have higher rates of suicide than others. Academic competition and pressures are not frequent precipitants of suicide in undergraduates. More often, suicide is precipitated by family or relationship problems, often in the context of substance use.

Moreover, we have learned quite a bit about college suicide prevention in the past 15 years. We know that keeping the means used for self-harm out of the hands of potentially suicidal people will save lives. College students have about half the rate of suicide of non-college-attending young people, in part, it appears, because few guns are allowed on college campuses. And there are definitive measures that can prevent an impulsive young person from taking tragic action. The securing and alarming of windows and roofs have been helpful deterrents. Actions such as Cornell’s adding barriers on its bridges are therefore prudent and sensible.

Educational outreach programs are also effective in assisting students, faculty and administrators to identify psychological problems and decreasing the stigma often associated with seeking treatment. Preparing entering students with previously treated disorders to establish a system of continuing care while on campus is vital, as is communication with parents on the importance of such care.

Interestingly, we have learned that we don’t prevent suicides by focusing solely or even too intensively on suicide prevention. Rather, it is essential that colleges offer comprehensive, accessible and affordable systems of general physical and mental health care, and that they utilize community and public health approaches to educate parents, students, faculty and administrators about the need to communicate, support and care for each other. Steps such as “gatekeeper training,” in which people most likely to have direct contact with troubled students (resident assistants, writing instructors, academic advisers, athletic coaches and chaplains, among others) are taught to identify and refer such students for counseling and peer education programs, have a proven track record. For example, the award-winning Active Minds on Campus, with chapters across the country, provides a forum in which students present programs focused on promoting acceptance and understanding of people with mental illness.

Many colleges employ online surveys to help students identify problems and utilize other technology-based modes of support, including appointment and medication reminders, to engage troubled students in a way they feel comfortable.

Among all key members of the college community, communication focused on the support and care of students in distress, while respecting the students’ privacy, is also essential. Finally, we know that whenever possible, it is best for troubled students to remain in school among their friends and working toward a positive future. At the same time, colleges and universities must allow for students who temporarily cannot function to return home for more intensive assistance and treatment.

In fact, it turns out that when it comes to suicide prevention, students, faculty, administrators and parents are all in this together.

Victor Schwartz is university dean of students at Yeshiva University and associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Yeshiva’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Jerald Kay is professor and chair of the psychiatry at Wright State University’s Boonshoft School of Medicine. They are the editors of Mental Health Care in the College Community (Wiley).


Some resources:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Suicide Prevention
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
The Jed Foundation

Footnotes:
1 Ellen, E.F. (2005). Suicide prevention on campus. Psychiatric Times, XIX. Retrieved August 8, 2010, from http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/display/article/10168/54106
2 American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Risk Factors for Suicide. Retrieved August 8, 2010, from http://www.afsp.org/index.cfm?page_id=05147440-E24E-E376-BDF4BF8BA6444E76

6 responses to “Talking about a difficult subject”

  1. Katie '14 says:

    Hi Matt,
    This is a real concern, and the question of suicide is one I am frequently asked when people learn I am attending MIT. Thank you for addressing this matter so sensitively and truthfully.

  2. Ben '14 says:

    Most people ask me about this jokingly, but you made me really think about this, Matt.
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Sadia says:

    It’s funny how I never thought MIT had a suicide rate. Never really knew people did until I read this blog. Then again, I studied psychology and know suicidal and depressed people. Suicide isn’t based on academics, but issues with family and relationships, and yes, the media does blow things out of proportion for high ranking colleges. My college (dual enrollment) has suicides and suicidal and severely depressed students, and it doesn’t even make local news.

  4. Dad of a '14 says:

    My daughter left after her first visit to MIT thinking she did not want to attend. Unknown to me until the trip home, she had heard this rumor just days before the visit and it had a negative effect on her impressions of MIT. On the way home we discussed it, later did research and debunk it and she decided to attend CPW. Well, she had a blast!
    She is currently at MIT finishing up the seven week Interphase summer program and absolutely loving it smile

  5. Ruslan'15? says:

    That is very serious post Mr McGann,
    Thanks…

  6. As many people have been saying, Matt–thank you for addressing this. I actually was perturbed to note that at least one prominent college guidebook makes pointed references in its article on MIT to the subject, which I don’t think is fair considering other schools’ equal or greater problems with suicide and crime. Putting that to rest will no doubt be very comforting to students and parents alike!