MIT Students' Deaths Prompt Soul-Searching And Lighter Workloads

MIT Students' Deaths Prompt Soul-Searching And Lighter Workloads
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology main building at sunset in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology main building at sunset in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.

Some instructors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are pushing back due dates on assignments, canceling classes and making certain tests optional after two student suicides in recent weeks, student newspaper the Tech reports.

Matthew Nehring, a freshman, died on campus on Feb. 28. Christina E. Tournant, also a freshman, died at home on Mar. 5 while on voluntary medical leave.

In response, MIT chancellor Cynthia Barnhart last week "asked professors to lighten the load for students," the Boston Globe reported. (Barnhart and Dean of Student Life Chris Colombo did not respond to The Huffington Post's requests for comment.)

Electrical engineering professor George Verghese canceled a lecture and made homework optional for a week. In an email to students (see full email below), he asked them to join him at the Harvard Art Museums, which are near campus and free for MIT students.

"We're surrounded here by all these museums, and there's no reason I had to have that next lecture," Verghese told HuffPost. He explained that when he was a student, visiting museums was a great comfort. About a dozen students went to the Harvard Art Museums, and others have come to his office to talk.

"My wife tells me that the students will probably remember that trip long after they've forgotten what I taught them," Verghese said.

"The pace of life at MIT is fast and challenges can mount, amplifying feelings of despair," professor Peter Fisher wrote in an email sent to students in the Physics Department. "Getting help from Mental Health will also make a big difference. There is no shame in this -- in fact, it is a sign of courage and strength."

Visits to the school's mental health services have doubled in the last 15 years, the Globe reports, and now MIT is planning a new community initiative called "We All Struggle Together" to emphasize that it's "socially acceptable to acknowledge imperfections and to seek assistance."

Student suicides in recent years have prompted a number of Ivy League and other elite universities to put an increased focus on mental health on campus.

Following deaths at Stanford, Columbia and Yale universities, students on those campuses called for improved mental health resources and reforms to voluntary leave policies. Students also raised concerns over workloads. Similar discussions have taken place at Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania.

UPenn started a stress and mental health task force following two suicides last year. In its final report released last month, the task force cited "destructive perfectionism" as a major source of student stress. The report called for increased communication about mental health resources and training for the community on mental health, according to the Daily Pennsylvanian.

Verghese said that similar pressures are at work at MIT.

"The competition here is not at all related to dragging everybody else down," he told HuffPost. "The competition here seems to be competition with one's self. People have high standards, and they work very hard, and they want to excel.”

"I’m not trying to make a connection between workload and these particular events," he added. "I’m just trying to talk about stress that students feel and the prevalence of it."

Tragedies foster dialogue about pressure and encourage self-reflection, but not all student suicides at elite schools are caused by schoolwork. As Barnhart told the Globe, "Understanding and somehow controlling stress doesn't solve the suicide problem."

"Everyone needs to be a little self-reflective, taking care of their mental health, and worrying about if those around them are also taking care of themselves," Verghese said.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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