Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Coming to Terms with the Death of a Student

Lydia K. '14, Meltdown, October 29, 2012, MIT Admissions Web Site,
I don’t think many people understand what we mean when we say that MIT is hard. It’s not just the
workload. There’s this feeling that no matter how hard you work, you can always be better, and as long
as you can be better, you’re not good enough. You’re a slacker, you’re stupid, and MIT keeps an
overflowing warehouse of proof in the second basement of building 36. There’s stress and there’s
shame and there’s insecurity. Sometimes there’s hope. Sometimes there’s happiness. Sometimes
there’s overwhelming loneliness.
One thing that is most important to me:  Coming to terms with a student death.

I have been a faculty member at MIT since 1971, and in that time there have been a number of student deaths almost certainly related to untreated or undiagnosed clinical depression.  There was one student death in the early 80’s in particular that I felt causally connected to.  The phrase “causally connected” means that I felt that my actions or lack of actions had some bearing on the cause of the death of that student.  It is commonly said that each death of this nature affects approximately ten other people in major ways, and I am one of those ten in this case.   I would like to talk today on how I have tried to come to terms over the last thirty years with my feelings of responsibility for that death.
In the events that have troubled me for so many years, there was a moment in time when I realized that the student was in real trouble.  The student had been in my 8.02 recitation twice, and failed 8.02 each time.  I can remember thinking to myself at that moment in time, as if it were yesterday, that I should find out what was going on with that student.  To my eternal regret, I thought that thought, but did not act on that thought.  I was tenured, but busy, too busy to take the time to make the necessary inquiries, and I felt that it was not my responsibility in any case.  Someone in S^3 was responsible.

I was profoundly shocked when the student died a month or so later.  At the time of the death, I simply could not understand how someone could do what the student had done.  It was a mystery to me.   Although I felt bad at the time, I thought there was something going on that I just could not fathom, and that provided some comfort.  If this had happened mysteriously for reasons beyond my control, then I had no responsibility in it. 

Unfortunately for that illusion, sometime later, in the late eighties, for the first time, I became clinically depressed. Fortunately I responded well to anti-depressant medication and talk therapy.  I do not today struggle with depression, any more than I struggle with getting the flu.  But for a time I was severely depressed.  And for the first time I understood how profoundly painful simply existing can be.  So painful that I could then understand at some level how it was possible that one could see death as preferable to life. 

And that gave me insight that I had not had before about what had led to the death of the student years before.   I could now understand the path that the student had gone down, and it was not a path of choice.  One no more chooses to die of clinical depression that one chooses to die of cancer.  So I concluded that I indeed was responsible to some degree, in that there were things that were in my control about the circumstances surrounding this death, and more importantly, that there were things that still remained extant that I could affect as a faculty member.
In the early 90’s I began lecturing in on-term 8.02, with something like 800 students, with the vague feeling that I could somehow reduce the stress associated with that course.  After three years I stopped doing that because I did not feel that lecture was a particularly good way to teach, and it was very hard to see that I was making or could ever make any real impact on student well-being given the way the course was structured. 
Later, in the early 2000’s, MIT had a lot of resources available to try new ways of teaching, and I got interested in trying the so-called studio format of teaching physics.  One of the many things that recommended that method to me was that institutions that had tried it found that it decreased the failure rate.  In my mind, decreasing the failure rate meant decreasing the stress, and decreasing the stress meant decreasing the chances that the stress would lead to clinical depression, and possibly death.  Although that was not the only reason I got involved in trying to change the way that freshmen physics was taught at MIT, it was one of the reasons. 

I spend six years of my professional life, and a lot of MIT’s resources, to set up the studio format we now use to teach freshmen physics to most of our students.  The failure rate is down and more importantly the students are much more tied into the course, in both their attendance and their interaction with both faculty and other students.  And the learning gains have improved by a factor of two across the board, both in the upper third of the students academically, the middle third, and the lower third.  This is a tide that raises all boats, across the board.  That is the main reason I invested so much of my career in this effort, because I love physics and I want to see others love it as well.  But I also want to see students not be injured by having to take physics.  And I think that I have achieved both goals to some extent, which consoles me in the context of feeling in part responsible for the student death many years earlier.

In recent years I have also been more straightforward in publically addressing the underlying issue that this course redesign was in part aimed at:  reducing stress on our students.  Being more public was motivated by an article in the Tech by Grace Taylor ’12 in 2012 that was about her depression and how she dealt with it.  I was simply blown away by her article.  I still remember sitting in the Student Center reading the article on the day it came out, and just being amazed about how brave she was to do what she was doing. 

A bit later I was approached by Betsy Riley ’14, Chair of the Undergraduate Association Student Support Committee, about writing a similar article about my own experience with clinical depression for the Tech.  I have always been very open about having been clinically depressed, on a personal level, which is why Betsy knew to approach me, but this was very different.  This was on a very public level, and there is a lot of stigma attached to having been clinically depressed.  I would never have done this without Grace’s example and Betsy’s request.
In retrospect, I have found that my publically claiming clinical depression as my own has done a world of good.  It serves to normalize the experience, in that it makes it more acceptable for a student to admit that they may be depressed, and seek help for that depression, if they have examples in front of them that say that is ok to do that.  One of the anonymous comments in the Tech on the article I wrote about my own experience with depression was the following: 

Thank you. I believe this is one of the most important things that can happen on this campus around mental health - letting people know that they're not alone, and that they are not somehow permanently broken. Thank you.

So this is how I have tried to come to terms with the impact of the death of a student almost 30 years ago now.  In large part I feel I have made amends.  But it has been a long process that is still not over, and never will be. 

Grace Taylor ‘12, MENS ET TENEBRAE: It’s not you, it’s a disease, The Tech, Tuesday April 10, 2012.
My first few weeks on Prozac were like a prolonged version of that scene in the 2002 Spiderman movie
where Tobey Maguire wakes up and, instead of being a skinny, weak nerd, he’s buff and can fly through
the skyscraper canopy of Manhattan. For the first time ever, I felt like life was a pretty good time. The
pervasive feelings of sadness, anxiety, and fear that had plagued my life subsided almost completely.
Besides the actual relief of my symptoms, I felt incredibly relieved by the fact that my symptoms could
be relieved. It’s not me. It’s a disease. It’s treatable. Feeling horrible is not an inherent quality of my

Professor John Belcher