Students pshychological well being, university’s responsibility?

By Renee DiPietro
May 2, 2002

Massachusetts Institute of Technology – a school where many of the country’s best of the best students go. Let’s just hope that not many more of its students end up like Elizabeth Shin.

Elizabeth was a smart girl- salutatorian at her high-school graduation and an accomplished clarinetist-yet she committed suicide. Elizabeth had been threatening suicide for a while but her family was never notified because M.I.T. was protecting her confidentiality. Instead, the school allowed her to deteriorate and never disclosed to her parents that a school psychiatrist had considered hospitalizing her and that she had attempted suicide numerous times. Elizabeth’s family saw her the day before she burned herself to death in her dorm room.

Now, two years after her death, the Shins are filing a $27 million wrongful death suit against M.I.T. in a Massachusetts superior court. M.I.T. is suggesting that Elizabeth’s parents knew more than they let on and chose to ignore evidence of her troubles.

The big legal question is, who was responsible for Elizabeth Shin? There is no legal answer yet, but what might not be discussed in the court are the people who wore the pain of their friend day in and day out. Their friend cut herself frequently, threatened to stab herself with a knife, overdosed on Tylenol and had the lowest of lows. But they stayed with her. They took turns staying up late with her late at nights after she was released from mental health service. They begged the school, the dean, to help their hopeless friend. But their request went unanswered for the most part.

While binge drinking is epidemic, suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students. “About one-third of colleges recently surveyed reported at least one suicide in the previous year.” There have been 12 suicides since1990 at M.I.T.

Is there a solution? I do not know. I know there are a lot of mandatory programs at other schools, such as the University of Illinois that makes suicidal students undergo four weeks of mandatory assessment sessions. “Of the 1,500 students who have gone through Illinois’s program over the last 17 years, none have committed suicide.” So that sounds like one solution. But before any programs there has to be awareness. If you know someone who is suicidal you cannot hesitate in getting him or her help.

Elizabeth’s parents told the New York Times that when they visited their daughter the day before she died that “her eyes did look tired and puffy.” Her parents knew that she had a lot going on, “what with her studies, her clarinet performances, her fencing meets. That was M.I.T., they thought, and that was Elizabeth, always pushing herself.”

Always “pushing themselves” has been the evolving national image of college students, but it is resulting in the most troubled student body that has required more mental health care than every before. Eye-opener? Me too. Me too.

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Renee DiPietro

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