Despondent, Gale went to the university's mental health clinic for help in early 1998 but later told friends that the counselor was "a total loser." The session apparently went badly, and Gale never returned. Finally, sometime before the evening of Fri., March 13 of that year, a typical party night on the campus, the 19-year-old Gale sat down to compose his last thoughts. "I am unwilling," he wrote, "to live in mediocrity. And this is what I have chosen to do about it." At 7:28 p.m. he leaped from the 15th floor of the Green Building, the planetary sciences hall and tallest high-rise on campus.
As sad as MIT students and professors were for Gale and his family, they were also distressed by the awful pattern that had emerged. Gale was the seventh student enrolled at the elite Cambridge, Mass., institution to take his life since 1990. Sadly, the trend would not stop at Gale's death. Another four undergraduates have committed suicide since, contributing to what some experts have described as a decade-long contagion of self-destruction. "Suicide has become a tradition here," says urban planner Eric Plosky, 24, an MIT alumnus who witnessed the aftermath of Gale's death. "Instead of making people angry, it's just accepted."
Indeed, since 1990 undergraduates at MIT have been three times more likely to kill themselves than those at other colleges. There are no easy explanations for the phenomenon, and the students had little in common with one another. But Madelyn Gould, a Columbia University psychiatrist who has researched suicide clusters, says that when a troubled youth learns that others have killed themselves, it makes suicide seem like a more viable option to end his or her own pain. "One suicide, even once a year," says Gould, "increases the risk that another will occur."
Still, Plosky and other critics claim that officials at MIT, which currently has 4,258 enrolled in its undergraduate program, have done far too little to try to break the cycle and have hushed up details about the suicides to protect the school's reputation. "A lot of people think MIT emphasizes good publicity more than good policy," says sophomore Sandra Chung, 19, a brain and cognitive-sciences major from Knoxville, Tenn.
Even by the school's own admission, there are serious gaps in the safety net for troubled students. According to a report by an MIT-organized mental health task force released on Nov. 14, visits to the campus psychiatric clinic rose 60 percent during the past five years, while staffing levels have remained flat. A startling 74 percent of students surveyed reported they had suffered from emotional problems that interfered with their lives and studies, with some saying they had to wait 10 days to see a counselor.
In response MIT recently added extra evening hours at its mental health clinic and assigned additional counselors to work in the residence halls. Earlier this year the school boosted the insurance coverage that it offers students to pay for visits to psychiatrists off campus as well—part of an ongoing effort to create overlapping support networks suitable for the needs of the broadest range of students.
University officials also disagree with the contention that suicide is more common there than at other colleges. Citing research that suggests men take their own lives more often than women, they say the statistics may be skewed by the demographics of the MIT student body, which is only 40 percent female. Moreover, they reject a common assumption that the school's rigorous curriculum, which has produced 22 Nobel laureates in 140 years, is at fault. Studies bear them out, showing that, while academic demands can put added pressure on students, 90 percent of suicides at schools nationwide are triggered by depression or other mental illnesses. "I've been here 22 years working on these issues," says MIT student affairs dean Robert Randolph, "and I've never seen a suicide where the precipitating factors were not very complicated. Growing up is difficult, in some sense more difficult than ever, and our students, who are the best and brightest in the world, do arrive with psychological baggage sometimes. In far more cases than not, we can help them to work that out to their own advantage."
Recent tragedies at MIT leave little doubt that helping students in crisis can be an exceedingly complex challenge with life-and-death consequences. That was certainly the case with Elizabeth Shin, who had experienced a months-long and at times public descent into despair. On April 10 of last year the 19-year-old sophomore biology major from Livingston, N.J., set herself on fire in her dorm room. She died four days later from burns covering 60 percent of her body. "It is a tragedy that positively could have been prevented," says David DeLuca, a Quincy, Mass., lawyer who plans to file a malpractice and negligence suit early next year against MIT on behalf of Shin's Korean-born parents, Cho Hyun Shin, 51, a real estate broker, and his wife, Kisuk, 48, who worked as a hairdresser until her daughter's death.
An MIT spokesman, citing privacy concerns, declined to discuss the details of Shin's or any other student's suicide, but a reconstruction of events shows evidence of a complex clash of the rights of students, the obligations of universities to protect them and the concerns of parents.
When it came to her drive to succeed, Elizabeth Shin was not all that different from other MIT students. "Once she took an interest in something, she always had to be No. 1," says Cho Hyun Shin of his daughter, a talented clarinetist who performed at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. Elizabeth, however, was also battling a mental illness. During the 1998-99 academic year, she overdosed on prescription painkillers and spent six nights at a Belton, Mass., psychiatric hospital. Less than a month before she died, she suffered a breakdown and was taken to MIT's infirmary, where a doctor examined her and prescribed an antidepressant—all of which her parents knew. What they didn't realize, says Cho Hyun Shin, was how deeply troubled their daughter had become. "I guess deep inside she didn't want to disappoint or alarm us," says her father.
The day before the fire, Shin's parents visited her on campus to deliver a new TV and VCR, but they noticed nothing abnormal about her mood. Nor were they told by MIT staff that, during the preceding days, Shin had slashed her arm with a sharp blade and was repeatedly heard by residents of her dorm screaming that she wanted to kill herself. She had made multiple trips to the MIT clinic during the previous weeks, and a psychiatrist was informed of Shin's increasingly anguished behavior two days before she set herself on fire in her bed, apparently with candles. "Later, some of Elizabeth's dormmates would tell us that they thought it was only a matter of days until she would kill herself," says Cho Hyun Shin, "but no one bothered to call us."
DeLuca, the family's lawyer, acknowledges that Shin, a reluctant patient, may have refused to give university doctors permission to contact her family about her rapidly deteriorating emotional state. Colleges are prevented by federal law from divulging academic and medical information about students over the age of 18, but an exception can be made in the event of a life-threatening emergency. DeLuca insists that Shin's case was clearly a crisis, and that her parents could legally have been informed by MIT. "As one [outside] psychiatrist I consulted put it, not only were there red flags," says DeLuca, "they were snapping in the wind."
Last spring, nearly a year to the day after Shin's death, her redbrick dorm, Random Hall, was again the site of a student suicide. This time, on April 30, chemical engineering major Julia Carpenter, 20, ingested a lethal dose of cyanide. The older of two daughters of Timothy Carpenter, 55, a Houston business executive, and his wife, Kay, 51, a homemaker, Julie (as most everyone called her) had enjoyed the perks of her upper-middle-class upbringing—horseback riding and local performances of Broadway musicals—but was also seriously committed to her studies. "She was absolutely brilliant, and she loved to argue with you," says Kenneth Arnold, 59, CEO of a Houston oil industry engineering and project-management company, whose son Zev, 21, was Carpenter's longtime boyfriend. "It drove you crazy, but you loved it too."
When it came time for college, Carpenter chose MIT because she considered it the best. Zev Arnold, by then a sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., recalls that in the fall of her sophomore year, Carpenter told him about a male student from her dorm named Charvak Karpe, then 17, an electrical engineering major. She soon developed what Arnold describes as an "older-sister-type relationship" with Karpe. But as the Christmas holiday approached, things changed. According to Michael Lamson, Julie's uncle and a Houston attorney who acts as spokesman for the Carpenter family, Karpe became obsessed with Carpenter despite her attempts to rebuff him. He entered her room, took personal information from her computer and slept for hours outside her door.
Feeling trapped in her own room, Carpenter filed a harassment complaint against Karpe with the dorm's judicial committee at the beginning of the spring semester—what would become her final term at MIT. Initially the committee held a hearing in which colleagues from her dorm gave testimony. But according to an internal MIT document, they could not reach a decision. The university administration subsequently intervened and, the document says, ordered Karpe to move out of the dorm while it conducted a review of its own, during which Karpe admitted he had stalked and stolen from Carpenter to "scare" her.
On April 24 the university issued a final decision ordering Karpe to undergo therapy and write a paper on how it feels to be a victim and recommending that he read several books dealing with harassment of women before he could apply for readmittance to Random Hall. "I think it is ludicrous to tell a kid like this to read a few books when there are allegations of felonies like stalking, burglary and theft," says Lamson.
The news of the light sentence sent Carpenter, whom Zev says had considered suicide on other occasions, into a tailspin. "Even more than having to live in the same building with Karpe again, Julie felt that nobody cared how much pain she was in," he says. "She was in a fragile state, and the decision just broke her."
Dormmates would later tell police that Carpenter attended a rooftop party at Random Hall on the night of April 29 before returning to her dorm room, where she apparently swallowed cyanide. Her roommate returned early the next morning to find her facedown on the floor. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
Stung by criticism from Carpenter's family that MIT's handling of her harassment complaint prompted her suicide, officials have appointed an independent examiner to conduct a thorough review of the case. Karpe, who has resumed his studies at MIT, is trying to put the tragedy behind him. "It was at a time when I felt very unstable and lonely," he says. "I went through a lot of grief over this." Arnold, however, hopes the review process will push the university to pay closer attention to the security concerns of female students. "There were a lot of people at MIT who were really worried about her," says Zev, now on a yearlong leave of absence from college while he tries to come to terms with his girlfriend's death. "I just don't think the administration was worried."
For her part, Marie Gale, now living on a ranch in Oregon, doesn't hold MIT responsible for her son's death, though she does wish that Philip had found more time for religion or some form of spirituality while on campus. "I've come to the conclusion that the would haves, could haves, should haves don't really matter. That's a trap that you will never get out of," says Gale.
Eric Plosky doesn't see things that way. Plosky, who keeps a shard of glass from a window broken by Philip Gale before he plunged to his death as a reminder of that tragic day, feels the school bears greater responsibility for the welfare of its students. "Suicide at MIT is now an issue with a capital I, and that's good because it means finally it can be addressed," he says. "But that's only a start."