The MIT Mental Health Service
  1995 2000 Increase (%)
Undergraduate patients 315 514 63
Graduate student patients 367 584 59
Hospital admissions 16 27 69
Average number of visits per student patient 5 5 0
Full-time staff equivalents for students only 8.4 8.4 0

Source: MIT Mental Health Task Force Report, November 2001

Education and Outreach

In the long run, it will be the educational and outreach programs the Institute creates-along with the relationships that clinicians, housemasters, and tutors develop in residence halls-that will have the greatest impact. Today there are many ways students can get mental health care, and MIT is making a concerted effort to develop existing options and put new ones in place.

Maryanne Kirkbride, who joined the staff last fall as the Institute’s first clinical director for campus life, is charged with strengthening those efforts and relationships between MIT Medical-particularly the Mental Health Service-and the campus community.

“We’re rethinking health promotion,” she says. “It’s not just a series of workshops or information about stress or kiosks or just outreach, although that’s important. It’s really about developing programs that make a difference and being able to get them to a scale to improve the health of the campus community.”

The most pervasive of all the programs is a two-pronged social-marketing campaign that addresses alcohol use on campus and encourages troubled students to seek mental health care. Student committees are driving both campaigns, determining which educational efforts will be most successful, and working with an outside consulting firm to develop the programs.

Alcohol education efforts MIT initiated in 1998 are closely linked with the Mental Health Service. “A lot of times students rely on alcohol as a way to cope with stress,” says Danny Trujillo, associate dean for community development and substance abuse programs. “Problems with alcohol are often symptomatic of an underlying mental health issue.”

Last fall one of the pilot efforts of the alcohol education program included a series of ads in the Tech that were supplemented with chalked messages on campus sidewalks. The message stated that 74.6 percent of MIT students report having zero to two drinks a week. According to Trujillo, the national average ranges from 51 to 62 percent. By informing students about norms at MIT, Trujillo hopes to discourage excessive drinking.

Although many colleges have used social-marketing techniques to address alcohol issues, the mental health campaign will break new ground when it is introduced next fall. In addition, last year the Institute started screening freshmen to identify students who might develop drinking problems. These students participate in a two-session program that helps them evaluate the role alcohol is playing in their lives. And this year’s freshmen were the first whose initial health screening included questions meant to flag mental health needs. Siegel personally contacted all students who said they wanted an appointment.

At the grass-roots level, the Institute is putting more emphasis on training for housemasters, tutors, and resident advisers. Training sessions that previously had been held only during orientation have been extended throughout the year. About 60 undergraduate liaisons to MIT Medical take training classes spread over a semester and supplemented with periodic updates. These students, called MedLINKS, provide all kinds of medical information and referrals to students who are comfortable talking only with their peers.

Siegel plans to emphasize a community-based prevention model for the Mental Health Service, with clinicians presenting programs to students in their own residences. Stewart cautions that “it’s touchy bringing mental health into the dorms, because sometimes students wonder if they’re being spied on.” Starting last year, clinicians from the Mental Health Service were assigned to every on- and off-campus residence. Serving as resources for housemasters, tutors, and advisers, these mental health professionals attend house meetings with housemasters and tutors and upon request present programs to the students. Randolph-who once headed Counseling and Support Services, a center that provides students with emotional and academic counseling-is now a housemaster in Bexley and is a resource to all housemasters and students.

In another effort to reach out to students, in 2001 MIT hired new student-life support professionals. Known as residential life associates, they live in the dorms, develop relationships with students and help housemasters with programming. And an experimental residence-based advising program for freshmen, now in its third year in McCormick and Next House, pairs freshmen with older students-all MedLINKS-who help new students make the transition to college life. The hope is that students will feel more comfortable talking about mental health issues with people they know well in their residence halls.

And for those students who feel threatened by the Mental Health Service, the more approachable Counseling and Support Services provides help with academic and personal issues. This arm of the Office of the Dean for Student Life works closely with mental health clinicians to solve problems and coordinate outreach efforts.

Despite all the improvements, some believe MIT could do better. One of the more persistent desires is for the Mental Health Service to extend its evening hours to 11 o’clock. Students would like adults to be available to them in their residences after hours, and some housemasters and graduate tutors would like to see more associate housemasters and tutors. MedLINKS, who most often work alone, say they would like opportunities to network with one another, and tutors express enthusiasm for working in teams with MedLINKS.

Above all, Randolph cautions, mental health problems are not easily solved. That reality is difficult for people who are accustomed to solving problems. “This is a pastoral endeavor,” he says. “It’s a process, not an outcome, and that’s really the hard part. We will have tragedies from time to time. The real issue will be how we respond and [whether] we learn from our experiences and grow as things change.”