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Suicides prompt search for answers

Published: November 11, 2011
Section: Front Page


Inside the walls of MIT, a university known for its world-class innovation and research, a close community of students and staff must now confront the tragedy of two suicides in two months.

Satto Tonegawa and Nicholas Del Castillo were two talented musicians and promising students, each found dead in their dorm rooms. Tonegawa was found just five days before his 19th birthday. Del Castillo was found just three days before classes began in September.

“We’re in pain. We’re reeling from the shock,” MIT chancellor Eric Grimson told The Boston Globe this week. “I don’t think we’re ever emotionally prepared to deal with something like this.”

University officials say the suicide rates are lower at Brandeis than at other schools. At MIT, five undergraduates students killed themselves between 1998 and 2001 and 10 students between 2001 and 2009. At Cornell, three students committed suicide in less than a month in March 2010. And at Brandeis there have been two suicides in the past two years.

The tragedy of suicide leaves campus communities with an irreplaceable hole, with friends, teachers and family asking the question: How could someone so apparently healthy on the outside be so troubled inside?

During the last five years, Brandeis has seen an increase of 15 to 20 percent in student visits to the Psychological Counseling Center, Dean of Student Life Rick Sawyer said. Even as the rest of the university faced budget cuts during the recession, the PCC was not impacted and the number of therapists available to meet with students has increased.

“Intelligent and thoughtful budget management has respected the relative importance of certain events,” Sawyer wrote in an e-mail. “Student safety is a priority and thus the counseling center has not suffered from budget restrictions.”

More than one-third of students at MIT and 40 percent of students at Harvard meet with counselors, according to The Globe. At Brandeis, officials estimate that by graduation, 50 percent of the class will have visited the PCC.

After the shock of suicide, university officials and students naturally search for answers asking one another how tragedy can be prevented in the future, how procedures can be changed and how colleges can foster comfort rather than isolation.

And after suicides at top-tier schools such as Cornell and MIT, the media often attempts to draw a correlation between academic stress and suicide.

But as universities have learned during the past decade, with rising numbers of students visiting campus psychiatric centers for counseling, academic, family and personal pressures develop from or because of mental illness.

Sawyer explained that the growing popularity of social media technology can present additional pressure for students trying to adapt to college.

“The traditional college age group has always been seen as living through a very stressful and vulnerable age. What is new is the impact of social media on individual student lives that are already complicated with social, financial, academic and financial challenges,” Sawyer wrote. “The ease with which one can broadcast his/her thoughts and the immediacy of responses from familiar and unfamiliar sources is concerning.”

Students suffering from mental illness and symptoms of anxiety and depression often don’t realize that there are alternatives to allowing such emotions to overwhelm them.

“The tricky thing about anxiety is that many people think that being anxious is a good way to deal with things and it’s often a response to things in your life or experiences that you don’t like,” Rebecca Grossman ’12 said in an interview with The Hoot. “But people don’t realize that there are actually better ways of dealing with it.”

What makes the suicides at MIT particularly disturbing is that the students were teenagers, dying before their 20th birthdays.

In the aftermath of such tragedies, university officials will search for answers and students will search for explanations but in time the discussion will turn to how to manage, not prevent; how to address, not neglect mental illness.

“We can’t fix everyone’s problems and we can’t make life less stressful. We can’t prevent the onset of mental issues but at least we can give people the tools to deal with them when they do happen,” Grossman said.

A picturesque Cambridge campus along the Charles River, filled with the nation’s most promising math and science students now faces a problem for which there are no simple answers, no proven formulas to restore normalcy to a vibrant and spirited college community.

And colleges across the nation will watch for MIT’s response, hoping that staff and students find some new coping mechanism—any mechanism—to transform grief into understanding, and shock into calm.