Transforming MIT culture
Mental health awareness should be part of our daily lives and relationships
CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to deaths of the past several months as having occurred last year.
“Suicide watch might be necessary.”
Five words texted to me from my best friend on a school night at 2 a.m. I held my breath, letting the full message sink in. In the past few weeks, he had begun a downward spiral in his mental health after a horrible breakup, and I knew that self-inflicted harm was not a foreign thought to him. The sudden realization that I might lose him incapacitated me.
Thank god this story did not end in death. When I regained my composure, I scrambled to my friend’s room and put him on the phone with Mental Health. After several sessions, appropriate medication, and copious amounts of time, he recovered. But not everyone is this lucky.
There were two apparent suicides last week at MIT, adding to four others confirmed in the past 12 months. Last year, there were four confirmed cases at Penn and in the past six months, suspected suicides at Columbia, Princeton, Dartmouth, Yale. All of these people had personalities, friends, and families. Yet all of them have become statistics because suicides at elite institutions are no longer an anomaly. High rates of depression have become the norm.
This is not right. There must be a solution.
My sophomore year, I began my own battle with depression. It crept up so slowly that at first I attributed it to stress over my schoolwork. Then to mood swings from my sleep deprivation. Then it was disappointments over my grades, emotional anxiety from my relationship, strained relations with my parents. I told myself over and over: it’s just a phase. But then several months passed. I stopped seeing friends, stopped attending commitments, lost motivation to do anything but sleep. Eventually I ran out of excuses. All the causes I had attributed my depressive moods to had become the effects. I was already several months into my depression when the realization slammed into me full-force: something was seriously wrong.
For me, the scariest part of depression wasn’t the isolation or even the thought that it may never end. The most terrifying, crippling sensation was looking at myself in the mirror and not being able to recognize myself anymore. Things that I considered an integral part of my identity — emotional articulation, academic success, resilience — were all gone. Emotions and thoughts that I no longer recognized would seize me unpredictably. I think fundamentally this is what depression stems from. A lack of self-understanding, self-acceptance, and eventually self-worth.
I told no one. I didn’t think anyone would understand. I once overheard someone say about another girl, “I can’t get any work done when she’s depressed all the time” and vowed then not to be the subject of that sentiment. The thought of finally opening up and having nothing come of it was devastating. Besides, how could someone understand my depression? Something so intimately tied to every little detail of my life, every subtle facet of my personality. Something that I didn’t even understand myself.
I was lucky. Even without telling him, my best friend noticed. The same best friend who texted me suicidal thoughts two years later. During my depression, he never tried to understand my battle. He was simply there, a steady comforting presence regardless of my mood. What I learned from him was that I didn’t need someone who asked me how I was doing in passing — because it’s much easier to say “I’m good” than not — but someone who had been there all along.
This is how I believe we fail at MIT: in the tumultuous schedule of each of our lives, we use the little time we have to celebrate with people during their successes, sometimes cry with them during their failures. But depression is subtle, and when we are too busy to be present for each other’s day-to-day, it goes unnoticed until it may be too late.
How do we overcome this culture of touch-and-go friendships? How do we foster a community filled with more meaningful relationships? We can push ourselves to be more proactive in our relationships, but I think that true long-term impact will come from changing the underlying culture.
At MIT, this culture embodies the perception that work takes higher priority than friends or health. This is sometimes fueled just by the nature of our classes, with problem sets due between 3 and 6 a.m. or misleading units. As much as we’d like to say that students are capable of avoiding procrastination, deadlines set during sleeping hours ultimately send the message that academic performance is more important than health. And although we’d like to think that misleading units — the tendency to mask 24-unit classes as 12-unit ones — is just a semantical difference, it systematically leads students to overload, driven by the need to reach the minimum units for graduation or to stay on financial aid.
Even the attitudes that some professors hold unintentionally propagate this culture. A joke in lecture about students pulling an all-nighter for the next problem set. A few words encouraging students to make one last push for the deadline. All these incidents and the above practices are nearly harmless taken individually, but collectively they insinuate the message that no cost is too high for serious work.
Students, too, perpetuate this culture viciously. As we welcome prefrosh during CPW, we say “grades, friends, sleep: pick two” and teach them that the choice is actually obvious: work hard, play hard, sleep later. During the school year, we elevate peers who take an ungodly number of classes and juggle endless extracurricular activities. We say “sleep is for the weak” and glorify all-nighters. We belittle peer institutions that don’t boast the same workload. We are so caught up in our pride that we don’t realize the toll it takes on us. When we’re suddenly confronted with an overwhelming amount of work, asking for help or an extension makes us feel incompetent. And when we actually sleep a healthy number of hours and still find the time to socialize, we feel like we aren’t doing enough.
Suddenly, time is short, stress is high, and the simple fact that we are human works against us. After one all-nighter or several days of restricted (3-5 hours) sleep, our immune systems weaken; our cognitive functioning slows down, including attention, memory retention, and alertness; and our emotional stability declines until some find themselves teetering on the precipice of depression. Even then there are still those who will push themselves harder.
Productive change is possible. The small gestures that unintentionally facilitate high stress and fragile relationships can be reversed. It won’t be easy. But it is actionable. Professors should be more mindful of deadlines for assignments; they should proactively empower students to ask for help when they need it, whether it’s simply going to office hours or asking for an extension and speaking to S^3; they should refrain from comments that propagate the idea that loss of sleep for work is expected or even acceptable. Administrators should rethink policies that lead to systematic overloading, such as setting the same unit cap on all courses instead of addressing each course on a case-by-case basis. Finally, we as students should stop glorifying all-nighters and workloads that are larger than life; we should expel the belief that work-life balance is impossible and that our youth is expendable; we should empower ourselves to recognize when we have reached our limits and need to take a step back. Most of all, all of us — professors, administrators, and students alike — should work to be more present in our relationships, so that we can foster a truly safe and supportive community.
Karen Hao is a member of the Class of 2015.