MIT 'Meltdown' Blog Resonates With Stressed-Out Students

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Lydia K.'s "meltdown" hit hard shortly after she began her junior year at MIT.

"Toward the end of September," Lydia blogged, "I became noticeably stressed out. I stopped talking to people, I stopped cleaning my room, and I got very lonely. It culminated in an hour-long cry session after a benign meeting with my biology professor about a class presentation."

An MIT undergrad blogs about the intense stress of college life when "no matter how hard you're not good enough."
An MIT undergrad blogs about the intense stress of college life when "no matter how hard you're not good enough."

A 20-year-old self-described "perfectionist" who was born in Moscow and started high school-level classes in 7th grade, Lydia had also stopped sleeping, spent much of her time working alone in a basement and, though feeling ill, was ignoring her symptoms. She'd recently missed a week of classes after recovering from a medical procedure and was struggling to catch up.

One night while working on a project that wasn't quite coming together, Lydia — a computer science and molecular biology major and a paid blogger for the MIT Admissions Department — decided to take a break and blog about her troubled, under-pressure state of mind. Though the instructions from Admissions were, she said, to keep it "PG and pretend that you're writing for your grandmother" Lydia decided to go for emotional truth and honesty. Here's a taste:

"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...There’s stress and there’s shame and there’s insecurity. Sometimes there’s hope. Sometimes there’s happiness. Sometimes there’s overwhelming loneliness."

Lydia's raw, revealing portrait of intense undergraduate angst and the enormous pressure to succeed that burdens so many students at MIT and beyond became an instant hit. Shortly after its publication, there were hundreds of comments from alumni, faculty and students from MIT and colleges across the country.  (One example, from Quynh: "This is beautiful. You have put into words what I've felt constantly since stepping foot on this campus but unable to express. Thank you." And from Random Harvard Student: "I go to Harvard, and this article perfectly hits on how I feel sometimes. Thank you so much for writing such a beautiful piece that makes me feel less pathetic about crying after coming back from a lab where I understood absolutely nothing.")

The piece got more than 4,000 "likes" on Facebook and over 40,000 views, more than most admissions blogs, according to Admissions Dean Stuart Schmill, who added that Lydia's "meltdown" "is not the type of post you'd usually find on an admissions website."

MIT's President Rafael Reif responded with an open letter in the student newspaper, The Tech, citing Lydia's "powerful account of her feelings of academic strain and anxiety" and calling for a deeper conversation about some of the problems she raised.

He wrote:

It is not clear to me that there is a magic wand of institutional action that would address the issues that Lydia highlights, in ways that would be acceptable to the MIT community as a whole; many of those posting comments shared this view, too. But the sheer number of people who responded to her post, and the warmth, respect and support evident in their comments, tell me that we should try to broaden and deepen this conversation across our community. I would urge every member of the MIT community — faculty, students, staff and alumni — to read Lydia’s words and try to imagine how we might respond, as individuals, as groups within the Institute and as an institution overall.

Earlier this week, The Tech announced a new survey based on the piece: "Did Lydia K's blog post resonate with you? The Tech is running a survey about stress at MIT."

I heard about Lydia's blog last weekend, when I happened to be at dinner with a bunch of MIT undergrads (my husband teaches there). They'd all read it and were abuzz.

Kaiying Liao, a junior studying computer science, said the post resonated so widely because of its honesty and "detailed description of the mix of feelings the majority of students have about the Institute." She elaborated in an email:

"While we all enjoy our experience at MIT, there are times when this place makes us feel absolutely miserable. From my experience so far, most of the students including myself have had moments where we break down. This "break down" (or "meltdown" as Lydia called it) typically comes from the feeling that we are somehow not good enough for MIT. Questions like "Am I supposed to be here? Am I smart enough to do this?" often pop into our minds. While the workload is difficult, I think a lot of it has to do with our environment of being constantly surrounded by brilliant and capable people. It is not a feeling of competition, that we think we have to be better than our peers; rather, I see everyone around me as a role model. When I see success in others, I get the idea that I should have the potential to be successful as well. We all go to the same school, so why not?"

Kai said Lydia's point about never quite feeling "good enough" is something she lives with constantly. "I definitely feel this all the time — no matter how hard I work, I know I can always do better. I want to push myself to keep working, and there does not seem to be a threshold for "good enough." However, that leads to the question of "Where is the stopping point?" Our own high standards are oftentimes raised further by the standards of our peers, and the inability to believe that something is good enough when the project or piece has already reached a high standard is ultimately what I think makes students feel the pressure and stress."

Of course the worry among faculty and administrators at MIT and on college campuses across the country is: How is all this stress negatively affecting the mental health of students?

When I spoke to Lydia, she told me her emotional meltdown truly began last year, following two high-profile student suicides at MIT and her own experience with a close friend who left the school due to depression. "It was a dark time for the whole institute," she said. After that, a slew of other personal troubles — several romantic breakups, a few "C" grades, illness and weird allergies — left Lydia feeling spent and miserable, she said.

In her post, she notes the extreme highs and lows of her college existence:

There’s something to giving everything and always falling short. Eventually we’ll walk out with a deep understanding of our fields, a fantastic tolerance for failure and late nights, and raised expectations for ourselves and for humankind. Someday, we’ll look back on these four years as the best years of our lives and the foundations of the kinds of friendships that can only be formed with some suffering. But right now, IHTFP. Sometimes it feels like MIT drags your self-esteem over a jagged, gravely rockface and stretches your happiness, your mental health, and the passion and energy that brought you here like an old rubber band.

Ultimately, Lydia sought help from student support services, engaged with her advisor and re-established a normal sleep schedule and a more nutritious diet. Then she wrote her story (which I would argue was therapeutic in itself) and found she's not alone. Now, she says, she's feeling much more optimistic.

But many college students don't get the help they need, says Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, PhD., director of the College Mental Health Program at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. and an instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School. She offered these statistics:

--80% of college students who need mental health services won't seek them

--50% of all college students say they have felt so depressed that they found it difficult to function during the last school year

-- One out of every four college students suffers from some form of mental illness, including depression

--The rate of student psychiatric hospitalizations has tripled in the past 20 years

Pinder-Amaker says the notion that no matter how hard you work you're not quite good enough "resonates with college students everywhere."

Students today are hyper-stressed about achieving academically, but there are even more internal and external pressures, she says, including transitioning away from home, learning to navigate new relationships with roommates, peers, lab partners, faculty, and perhaps — for the first time — an intimate partner. Add to that: increasing angst about the economy and a bleak post-college future, unhealthy habits around not sleeping or eating well and exposure to excessive alcohol, and "you've got a perfect storm" of high-stress forces at work.

And without intervention, she said, this everyday stress can devolve into true mental illness under certain conditions.

"There is significant scientific evidence that stress from life experiences is a key ingredient in the development of psychiatric illnesses like Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, etc." Pinder-Amaker said. "For example...if a student's life stressors combine with their own predisposition (biochemical, genetic, etc.) to MDD, and the stressors exceed a certain threshold, the person will develop MDD."

The question is how do you gently steer these kids toward help?

Pinder-Amaker offered this analogy: "What if we knew, like Hurricane Sandy, it was coming to your campus and you had six months to prepare. Would you bring in additional resources to support these students after the fact, or would you try to reach students where they are and teach them methods, skills to manage and navigate these stressors and strategies to deal with the storm, buffer them and protect them from harm?"

The answer, she says, is to do it all. Some schools, for instance, are incorporating mental health and wellness into the required curriculum. Others try to connect kids who might need support with services even before they arrive on campus, through anonymous surveys.

"You need excellent resources and counseling centers, but the same staff, along with other staff and faculty, need to be increasingly engaged and reaching out to students. So you start with the blog and then elevate it to a campus dialogue to try to meet students where they are."

Lydia, who'd always planned to be a professor of computational biology, says in light of her blog and the compassionate response, she's considering alternative paths — like becoming a writer (she's already planning her post-MIT memoir). Also, she's encouraged that MIT administrators acknowledged the importance of her story. "I'm really happy I managed to open up this dialogue," she said.

All the emails and comments truly made her feel like she's not completely lost on her own. "I went from feeling really upset and alone to feeling OK," she said. "I'm never going to get straight A's but that's OK. I'm going to accept that and just focus on learning." Her favorite response came from an MIT graduate, Ozzie, who wrote: "For what it's worth, it does get better though. Life won't always revolve around completing the next pset [problem set], just trying to keep your head above water. One day, you'll do more than struggle to keep up; you will set the pace. I wish you all the best, and hope things get better for you."

This program aired on November 9, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Rachel Zimmerman Twitter Health Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for Bostonomix.