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Mental health reports on enhancements

MIT's expanded Mental Health Service is focusing on treating emotional stress and promoting resilience, and faculty members have been encouraged to participate in new training programs for recognizing students who need help.

Alan E. Siegel, chief of mental health in MIT Medical, and Kristine Girard, associate chief of mental health, presented a report at the Dec. 17 faculty meeting on the new and enhanced services now in place, emphasizing those relating to student life and well-being. The service was enhanced at the recommendation of the Mental Health Task Force in its final report in 2001.

"We want to help students manage stress and find new, more effective ways to live and work at the Institute," Siegel said.

Siegel described the service's new hours and other changes intended to provide better access, greater responsiveness and improved communications among medical staff.

"There's a limited time when [a patient] is interested in talking," Siegel said, adding that appointments are now usually made two to three days following contact. He also noted that there are effective new approaches such as dialectical behavior therapy to help people who "need strategies to manage emotions, who have feelings but not a lot of words to manage them."

Additions to the mental health staff address both the diversity of the student community and the need for accessibility of services, Siegel noted. A clinical psychologist from mainland China as well as a psychiatrist specializing in substance abuse issues and psychopharmacology are now on staff, and two half-time clinical nurse specialists visit the dorms on weekends. A social worker with expertise in eating disorders also will be joining the service, Siegel said.

"Rather than expect students to come to us, we want to have options to go to them and engage with them. We're particularly concerned with eating disorders, and with students who look okay and are not okay after they have been hospitalized," Siegel said. The mental health service is developing a protocol for assessing when students who have been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons are ready to return to campus life.

"We want to help them maintain effectiveness and regain composure and stability," Siegel said.

Siegel encouraged the faculty to participate in new training programs to help people recognize students who need help. He cited as an example one faculty member who contacted the mental health service to discuss a disturbing darkness in a student's paper. "We're here to help faculty. Trust your intuition about your students," he said.

Girard (S.B. 1986) emphasized the important role faculty could play in developing a consistent protocol for student medical leaves of absence.

"We'd love your feedback on this," she said. "The numbers of students taking medical leaves has grown to well over 100 per year; most of these leaves are mental health leaves. Currently, international students have a limit of a one-year leave, and it seems fair to have a consistent policy. Our question to the faculty is, does a year seem a reasonable length for a leave, with an option for an extension?"

If a student isn't ready to return at the end of the leave, "we do not wave goodbye at that point," Siegel said. "These cases are rare, but some students may be eligible for Social Security disability. And Massachusetts' free care policy is very good for those without insurance. At Yale, students on leave have no insurance. We're developing our own policy; we don't want to follow other colleges' models with this."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 28, 2004.

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