MIT's Stata Center (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
I sat down to breakfast with my cereal, orange juice, and bottle of pills. Around me were several undergraduates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who lived with me at the cooperative house where I served as Resident Advisor from 2012 to 2014. When the conversation turned to my pills, I explained, as naturally as could be, that I was taking lithium carbonate to treat my mental-health diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder, Type II.
As the students’ eyes widened, perhaps wondering about the fitness of their new RA for the job, I explained that mood disorders based in brain chemistry are extremely common, that treatment is easy, that I’ve never felt better since beginning treatment. With a confidence rooted in life experience, I said to the students that I am a high-functioning person who gets a lot done, who accomplished a lot as a student at MIT years ago, and who has continued that pattern through a leadership career in political technology and now into studying for the rabbinate. I am managing a mental health condition. Thus, in a scene often repeated during my tenure, I encouraged the students to seek mental health screening if they should ever find themselves experiencing intense mood swings, periods of lethargy, or other potential warning signs from my life and from commonly available literature. I assured them that for those of us who experience these very common disorders, life gets a lot better with treatment.
Unfortunately, MIT has a lot of work to do ensuring a nondiscriminatory environment free of stigma and threat for students suffering from mental illness. During my two years as Resident Advisor, by far the most common question I received about mental health care was: “How can I seek mental health treatment without MIT finding out about it?” Each of the dozens, probably hundreds of times this conversation took place over my 26 months on the job, it was my understanding that there is a widespread, deep fear among MIT undergraduate students that if they seek mental health care, their statements might be used against them to stigmatize them, to disadvantage them, and/or to remove them from school against their will.
Never mind, for the moment, whether these fears are well founded or not. I don’t intend to be the party accusing MIT of doing anything in particular involving any specific case, for two reasons. First, I am as intimidated as the students of a self-defending bureaucracy – although I did send this article to high-level staff before publishing it, and I have e-mail records of their positive, if noncommittal, response. Second, this problem is hardly unique to MIT, and the purpose of this article is to bring the issue of student mental health into open discussion, not to make specific allegations of discrimination, medical malpractice, or other misconduct.