Twofish's Blog

July 23, 2006

Ideas about mental health at MIT

Filed under: academia, massachusetts institute of technology, mental health — twofish @ 6:16 pm

You make fundamental changes by taking baby steps….. Here are some baby steps…..

1) Move the mental health buildings into the same area of cognitive research. The President of MIT mentioned that the goals of MIT were to integrate technology and the life sciences, and that the benefit of MIT was that you had a campus layout where people can flow freely and interchange ideas. Right now medical services are in the side of the campus isolated from the rest of it. Also, we need to think of the mental health department as an *integral* part of the MIT curriculum and research and that means moving it toward the center of the campus rather than off to the side.

2) A medical review board must review and approve all curriculum changes (and it probably would be a good idea to review all of the current curriculum). The problem is that without considering medical issues the tendency is to put more and more into the curriculum until students are at their mental and physical limits, and really nasty things happen.

3) Students who take over a certain number of units should be encouraged to have a pitstop every so often. What I was trying to think of is a way of removing the stigma of “going to mental health” and one way of doing that is change the metaphor from “the emergency room” to “Lance Armstrong’s medical support staff.”

MIT has some extraordinarily high achievers, and if the “mental health department” is seen as the place to go when you want to do the mental equivalent of the “Boston marathon.” You want to try to see if you can take graduate with three degrees at the same time and take 75 hours of coursework in one week. We’ll help you do that. You want to see if you can work for a month at a time with three hours of sleep each night. Come to us. We aren’t going to tell you you can’t do it, because that would be like telling Lance Armstrong that he can’t do the “Tour de France” because that is too much work. We’ll just run some tests and tell you what the issues are, and some warning signs.
And it’s a two way street. Part of the reason I don’t want mental health to tell a student that something can’t be done is because they may be wrong. It might seem humanly impossible to subsist for weeks on three hours of sleep a night***, but MIT has some of the most extraordinary mental atheletes in the world, and if you find someone that can do something like that you want to study them to figure out what makes them tick rather than telling them to stop. That’s why you have to integrate mental health into research. And just don’t limit it to students. We really need to find out what makes a world-class Nobel-prize winning physicist tick, so that we could produce more world-class physicists if we wanted to (and make intelligent decisions about whether we want to do it or not).

(At this point, I think that there is room for a profession which is the equivalent of personal fitness coach.)

*** I know that most of the people in Course 8 (Physics) actually did subsist for weeks on end with two to three hours of sleep a night. The trick I learned was to be a sleep camel. Sleep for very little M to F, and then crash on the weekends. Something that is also interesting is that the student learning groups that did most of the work, did a lot of creative stuff at 2 a.m.

There are some other interesting observations about sleep (or lack thereof).

The other thing that I’ve seen (both at MIT and in NYC) is the “work hard/play hard” ethic (which I didn’t understand). Instead of trying to “fix” the “problem,” let’s try understanding it first.

The reason this is of interest to me is that I’m trying to make an intelligent decision about whether the “NYC lifestyle” is good for me or not. As a result of working “New York hours” for about two to three weeks, then seeing the article about Professor L, I had a “nervous breakdown” but before treating this as an “illness” let me point out that this “nervous breakdown” has led to some extremely interesting and creative ideas. If in order to get the creative output I’ve been getting, I have to expect a “painful nervous breakdown” every two or three months, it might actually something that I want to do, but it is something that I want to discuss rather than have it treated as a “illness.”

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