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New York City
July 2002

Students Against Suicide
By Hope Glassberg

If the saying “all press is good press” rings true, mental health issues have had quite a successful press run of late. From the popularity of A Beautiful Mind, the dramatization of Princeton University professor John Nash’s struggle with schizophrenia, to the highly publicized suicide of MIT sophomore Elizabeth Shin (and the ensuing legal battle) mental illness was, very literally, on the brain this year.

In the wake of the media blitz and a real need for better mental health services on college campuses, many student run organizations have sprung up to address this growing epidemic. While these groups differ in their approaches and configurations, they all evoke a common tenor: mental illness must be understood and dealt with proactively.

Sarah Ramer, Harvard ’03, is co-chair of a student created and run organization called Mental Health Awareness and Advocacy Group (MHAAG). After two of her floor mates attempted to commit suicide during her freshman year, Ramer says she was confounded by the lack of open dialog about mental illness.

“Two people on my floor out of 24 people tried to kill themselves and there was very little said about it. It seemed like there was very little said in general about mental illnesses. I just in general always thought it would be nice if a group of people came to the freshman study groups and talked about [mental illness]. I thought that’s what I want to be involved in, a group by students for students,” Ramer said.

Ramer discovered that such an organization had been created in 1997 after a student wrote a piece in the Harvard newspaper The Crimson about her experience with mental illness. The piece generated such a positive response that several students, including the author of the piece, decided to form a mental health awareness group, MHAAG. Ramer says the group had “fallen into disrepair” since their graduation but thanks to her and others’ efforts has enjoyed a renewed success and presence on Harvard’s campus.

MHAAG is one of a number of relatively new groups of this nature. Brown University has a counseling network called BSPAN; at Columbia University, a group called Students Against Silence (SAS) was developed this year to both respond to suicides and lead a proactive “campus climate change,” to name a few. But while SAS and MHAAG are student run and broadly focused, a mental health task force formed at MIT this year, claims students, administrators, and faculty to its staff and is more immediate in its aims.

Efrat Shavitz, MIT ’02, a student chair on the task force, says the group was designed to undertake what ended up being a Herculean task: evaluating the preexisting mental health apparati at MIT.

“We surveyed 1000 students and had very particular concerns that mainly fell under the point of accessibility. The support services that are on campus themselves are really good and there are multiple entry points, but the coordination of these points isn’t good. We developed recommendations on how [these systems could be coordinated.” The students also wanted evening hours because they have classes on a 9-5 schedule, faster appointment times, and better training for some of the people,” Shavitz said.

Shavitz says that she and the other members of the task force took these concerns and prioritized them and developed a list of recommendations, many of which have already been implemented or are being implemented this summer.

Despite their groups’ different approaches, Ramer and Shavitz espouse similar beliefs about the state of mental health affairs on college campuses. Both explain that their groups are not designed to simply address suicide or depression.

“Suicide is always at the back of your mind because you know it could come to that,” Ramer said. “I try to be very clear about there are other mental illnesses out there: obsessive compulsive disorder, for example. Other mental illnesses can inflict the same pain and damage as depression.”

Shavitz says she dislikes the term “suicide prevention” because “you can’t necessarily prevent suicide, you can setup all of your support systems in such a way that gives people all the help they could get. Our main objective was to look at the safety net available see how we could maximize it.”

Both suggest that the apparent rise in the number of college age students afflicted with mental illness has more to do with the age group and the effectiveness of modern medicine than a fundamental change in the college campus milieu.

“Most students who wouldn’t have made it to college before because of their mental illnesses are making it to college now because of medications that control the illness,” Ramer said. “A lot of students are entering college with illnesses.”

Shavitz also says that she believes the “trend will continue to grow” unless colleges and universities start dealing with mental illness in a frank and open manner.

“In the past, [mentally ill students made up] a relatively small population so colleges did a very good job of brushing the subject under the rug. It was a closed mouth sort of policy,” Shavitz said.

Many students find an exclusively administrative approach to mental health issues overly antiseptic and out of touch with real student needs. Ramer says that even the Harvard administration’s most earnest attempts to reach out to students were often met with indifference.

“The provost’s office put together this really nice brochure about depression. I was in the mailroom and when people found it, they tossed it in the trash, they didn’t care what it had to say or what it was about,” Ramer said.

Since her freshman year, Ramer has been a firm believer in the power of the personal testimonial.

“During my freshman year we had some students come and tell us stories about how they knew they were gay. I was struck by how frank they were. If you were struggling with the issue, you could relate to them and feel that it was ok. If you weren’t struggling with it, you could see that they looked just like you or me,” Ramer said. “We should have the same approach to mental health issues. Students should tell their own stories.”

Ramer and Shavitz emphasize that cooperation with administrators is key to the success of any mental health or awareness program. MHAAG has worked closely with Harvard administrators, particularly the office of the provost, and the task force at MIT is comprised of undergraduates, graduates, faculty, and administrators. Shavitz says this cooperation has been integral to task force’s ability to objectively analyze the problem at MIT and that mental health cannot be the exclusive province of concerned students.#

Hope Glassberg is a student at Columbia College and an intern at Education Update.


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