Over the past year, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has had four students commit suicide. These tragedies — two of which occurred in the span of one month — have forced MIT and colleges across the nation to rethink their outlooks on school work, mental health and student achievement. Many are blaming MIT and the pressure put on students to reach perfection and avoid failure, but I believe the real issue here starts much sooner than college.

Many of the students at MIT are competitive with their classmates as well as with themselves. They are often overachievers who are unfamiliar with failure. Therefore, when they arrive at a competitive school like MIT and push themselves to their limits, they are stressed out more than ever and caught off-guard by the strange feeling of not succeeding.

TYRRA Demeritt / Equinox staff

TYRRA Demeritt / Equinox staff

You don’t have to attend an elite college like MIT in order to feel the stressors of a college workload, though. Even here at Keene State College students can be heard stressing about their assignments on a daily basis.

In a normal week, college students find themselves overly stressed. Now make it an academic “hell week” in which multiple tests or large assignments are due. Time and time again, college students have heard professors say something like, “I don’t want to hear about your other classes” when students try to tell their professors that they are drowning in work.

Some students may find it easier to adjust to college and the possibilities of failure by altering their expectations, reaching out for help, changing their schedules and adopting healthy routines.

However, with the typical college workload, just finding time to make these adjustments is a challenge. These changes should be happening a lot sooner than college.

MIT estimates that students should spend 12 hours a week on a 12 credit course. It seems 12 hours is an understatement. According to the Boston Globe, students can spend seventy hours or more per week on schoolwork. Unfortunately, not everyone is able to adjust to college life so swiftly and controlling the stress still doesn’t prevent suicide.

According to a Boston Globe review of public records and university and media reports, MIT’s suicide rate over the past decade is 10.2 per 100,000 students including undergraduates and graduates.

That number is actually a decrease from the previous decade. From 1994 to 2005, MIT’s suicide rate was 18.7 per 100,000 students. However, it is still higher than the national average among colleges: 6.5 to 7.5 suicides per 100,000 students, as reported by major studies for undergraduates and graduates from 1980 to 2009.

MIT is not the only school with a high number of suicides. From the fall of 2013 to the fall of 2014, the University of Pennsylvania had six students commit suicide. During the 2009 and 2010 academic year, six Cornell students committed suicide. These numbers don’t portray the many others that may have attempted suicide or had suicidal thoughts.

MIT plans on starting a campaign called “We All Struggle Together” aimed at eliminating the stigma of mental illness, making it socially acceptable to acknowledge imperfections and seek help.

Although it is helpful, valiant and appreciated that colleges are taking the first steps to prevent suicides and lead students to a life with less stress and higher acceptance of failures, this overwhelming task should not fall entirely on universities’s shoulders.

If we start back at the beginning of a student’s education, we can teach that student that failure is okay. If we continue on the path we are on as a society and education system, then we are sure to only increase the number of suicides committed as a result of stress.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that suicide is the leading cause of death for people ages ten to 24-years-old. They report that this results in approximately 4,600 lives lost each year. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the number of children with diagnosable anxiety has risen up to 25 percent.

We as a society have forgotten to teach students how to cope with failure and stress in healthy ways. We have lost sight of how valuable it is to fail sometimes. Instead, we push students to their limits, stress them out and wear them down to reach perfection.

Maybe a student succeeds at everything they do all throughout their school years but, eventually, that student will fail at something and, when that happens, they will be unprepared to handle it because they have not been taught how.

We need to veer away from the perfectionist attitudes we have instilled in students and allow them to experience failure. By making changes in elementary and high schools, we can potentially prevent the fear of failure and overwhelming stress levels as well as a number of suicides.

We could rid our students of the perfectionism that has become the norm in colleges across the nation.

Taylor Howe can be contacted at thowe@kscequinox.com

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