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Clay endorses Mental Health Task Force recommendations

Chancellor Philip L. Clay endorsed the recommendations made in the final report of the Mental Health Task Force, released on Nov. 14.

"While many details will have to be worked out, their recommendations in the areas of improving and expanding services, coordinating services, and increasing and improving education and outreach are very well-framed," Clay said. "Their suggestions for a process, including a campus coordinator and a committee to monitor implementation, are appropriate and will be implemented.

"The task force was thorough and insightful in its work, and their report is an excellent assessment of campus mental health issues and challenges," he said. "The recommendations, when implemented, will support building a community that is caring and supportive of our graduate and undergraduate students."

The task force is a cooperative effort initiated in October 2000 by students, the chancellor, the Mental Health Service and the Undergraduate Association. The group was chaired by Dr. Kristine A. Girard, associate chief of mental health in MIT Medical, and Efrat Shavit, a senior in linguistics and philosophy.

The recommendations included "significant expansion" of the Mental Health Service; a comprehensive three- to five-year campus-wide social marketing campaign "so that students feel more comfortable seeking help"; development of a comprehensive outreach and education program; designation of an administrative coordinator; and creation of a standing committee on mental health.

The final report incorporates refinements of the Aug. 29 draft report that grew out of a series of intensive discussions on campus, including a meeting with housemasters and a town meeting sponsored by the Undergraduate Association. The result is a "much stronger, more clearly stated, better organized report that suggests ways to confront the problems," said Shavit.

Clay said he appreciated the extra effort the 20-member task force made in the last two months to gather comments from the community. "These comments will be very instrumental to the fulfillment of our goals. Equally significant is the fact that the very discussions which the task force had with different groups has heightened awareness about mental health issues in our community. We believe that this awareness is helpful in moving members to a more active stance in support of student well-being," he said.

One of the main recommendations in the final report is to establish residential support teams and departmental liaisons to provide two channels for people seeking guidance. Each support team would include a representative from Counseling and Support Services, the Mental Health Service, the Dean's Office, the chaplaincy and an emergency medical technician. Departmental liaisons may be faculty or staff members.

"The proposed outreach program should help lower the barriers of resistance" that now exist among students, said Shavit.

Dr. Girard believes the report has already "started to increase awareness of mental health issues in the community. Hopefully, with Institute support, these initial discussions will lead to substantive changes in attitudes and awareness around mental health in the MITcommunity and strengthening of the Institute-wide network of support including expansion of the Mental Health Service," she said.

Some recommendations have already been implemented. MIT has extended appointment hours and coverage into the evening, started a pilot residential support team and offered an option for 100 percent insurance coverage for external mental health services. The Medical Department reports that 6,931 students have enrolled in the Extended Plan, which represents almost 70.6 percent of the student body.

In addition, Clay said, "we have hired one health educator and will hire another. A new behavior assessment tool is being tested. Finally, we are searching for a person who will report to the medical director and Dean for Student Life and coordinate our campus efforts as the report suggests."

Clay said he would also appoint an advisory group, which will include members of the present task force and others, to serve for the remainder of the school year to assist in the implementation of these proposals and developing assessment mechanisms. Beginning in 2002, the responsibility for this activity either will shift to a new committee or will become part of the charge to the Committee on Student Life.

"The administration anticipates proposals for staffing for mental health for the next school year from the Medical Department and the Office of the Dean for Student Life. Lastly, in cooperation with the Dean for Student Life and the Medical Department, we will develop a process for getting feedback from students and others on the new initiatives that we are undertaking and on issues that may be suitable for the future," Clay said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on November 28, 2001.

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