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Mental health draft urges major expansion

A draft report of an MIT task force on student mental health has recommended a "significant expansion" of the mental health service, increased outreach to students and greater coordination of counseling services across MIT departments.

Chancellor Phillip L. Clay asked that the August 13 draft submitted to him be posted on the web to promote community discussion within MIT. The final report in October will be posted on a web site available also to the general public, Clay said.

The 20-person task force--co-chaired by Dr. Kristine Girard (SB 1986), associate chief of the MIT Medical's Mental Health Service, and Efrat Shavit, a senior in linguistics and philosophy--made the following recommendations.

Hours and staffing: Establish evening hours, "especially between 5 and 7 p.m. when classes are not scheduled." Arrange on-site mental health coverage until midnight every day. Continue on-call availability between midnight and 8 a.m. Add six to 10 full-time positions in steps, "accompanied by periodic reassessment and monitoring of community feedback."

Outreach: Provide each living group and academic department with a contact person for mental health issues. "Each mental health contact person may then develop a personal relationship with their living group, present information to students, and work with the GRTs [graduate resident tutors] and housemasters. Similarly, academic departments should designate one of their members as a contact for mental health concerns, as well as host an annual lunch meeting with providers from the MIT Medical Mental Health Service."

Awareness: "Create an environment at MIT where one's mental health is valued and in which all students feel comfortable and able to get help in times of need." Develop and implement a comprehensive marketing campaign over the next three to five years to increase awareness about mental health and reduce barriers to seeking help. Include large awareness events, educational forums, and increased print and web information to educate students. Train freshman advisors and all associate advisors on issues of mental health.

The report noted that of 263 students who returned surveys, 74 percent reported having had an emotional problem that interfered with their daily functioning, while 28 percent reported having used the MIT Mental Health Service. "Students reported overwhelmingly that they would discuss an emotional problem first with friends and family," the report said.

As one student said in an e-mail to the task force, "I think that the most defining thing about MIT students is that they are all 'the best.' They never needed help before, and they sure don't need help now ... or so they think ... I can guarantee you that asking for help is not easy for the typical MIT student."

Coordination: Create an administrative coordinator of support services to oversee mental health programming and ensure that various support services work together well. Form a presidential-level committee to continue examining MIT's support services and recommending improvements. Investigate and clarify policies for medical leaves and critical incidents.


The report found that the number of mental health staff has remained constant since 1995 while visits by MIT students increased 60 percent, a trend reflected "across the country." The number of students using the Mental Health Services went from 682 in 1995 to 1,098 in 2000. Mental health hospital admissions were 16 in 1995 and 27 in 2000. (Enrollment in fiscal 1995 was 9,774 compared to 10,090 in fiscal 2000.)

"At a time when other schools have increased their staff, MIT has lagged behind, ranking seventh of nine comparable select schools in the number of mental health full-time equivalents [staff] per student," the report said. It added, "However, MIT's mental health staff stood out as having the highest number of psychiatrists."

The report found that "MIT was the only school not to offer evening office hours, and the MIT Medical Mental Health Service reported a lower utilization (12 percent) as compared to other schools (14-16 percent)."

The Mental Health Task Force, which has been meeting since November, included Dean for Student Life Larry Benedict and the heads of the two departments involved in counseling at MIT: Dr. Peter Reich, chief of mental health, and Arnold Henderson, associate dean and head of Counseling and Support Services. The task force included a total of eight students, 11 administrative staff and one professor, the late John Edmond, who died April 10.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 29, 2001.

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