Last week NPR ran a story about recent suicides at MIT which highlighted the “imposter syndrome,” in which students feel like a fraud, dismissing their earlier accomplishments. The article also emphasized other non-academic factors in stress. I believe the not-so-subtle attempt at victim blaming downplayed MIT’s contributions to its students’ poor mental health.
For many years, MIT’s rate of suicide was far above the national average and it remains so. Most recently, six students died by suicide over about a year ending in March, including two freshman one week, which led MIT to lighten course loads it had misjudged.
My memories of MIT in the 1980’s reflect just that: very bright classmates’ who were unhappy due to intense academic pressure. The top engineering school was often, needlessly, a place of systemized misery.
The chancellor and the head of mental health denied interview requests for the NPR article. So I’ll weigh in.
Let’s start with the big picture. There were two expressions broadly understood to capture the student experience at MIT when I was there in the 1980’s. The first – “drinking from the firehose” – with its eerie resemblance to waterboarding – is an explicit acknowledgement it was impossible to learn all the assigned material.