High levels of stress at Carnegie Mellon decried

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After learning that a fellow student at Carnegie Mellon University had committed suicide last month, graduating senior Katie Chironis would not stay silent.

In a forum piece published by the student newspaper, she bemoaned a campus culture in which overachieving students wear insane workloads like a badge of honor, pretending to be fine while academic and personal stresses approach a breaking point. Citing friends who had left school early or stewed on campus alone, she wondered why her university wasn't doing more to get them help.

"Many are suffering, and no one's talking about it," she wrote. "Why?"

Her pointed words resonated on the campus of 11,000 students, sparking scores of online responses from students and alumni and eventually a decision by Carnegie Mellon to schedule a town hall meeting for tonight on the subject of campus culture and its relation to wellness.

It is a topic that has surfaced in various ways on some of the nation's most competitive campuses, where leaders struggle to uphold the rigor that defines their institutions even as they try to convince their students that balance in life is important, too.

Carnegie Mellon is deft at building robots for space exploration, for finding victims in collapsed buildings and for playing soccer. For decades, the school has propelled graduates into highly successful careers from banking to Broadway.

But some say Carnegie Mellon has been less successful at keeping its students from driving themselves to the brink.

In her Dec. 12 opinion piece in The Tartan, Ms. Chironis told of a student who built in extra study time from 4 to 6 a.m. to keep pace with assignments and others who would pull multiple all-nighters and how such academic war stories were met not with shock but admiration.

She said students are taught in a semesterlong course about library use and learning strategies but not how to identify a peer in emotional trouble.

"I get frequent reminders to fill out course evaluations, eat cake for Andrew Carnegie's birthday, and host prospective students, but I don't think I've ever received an email from the university reminding me to look out for my own well-being," she wrote.

Ms. Chironis, a staff writer and former editor of The Tartan, graduated last month with a degree in creative writing. She could not be reached for comment.

Dean of student affairs Gina Casalegno, who announced via campus email last week the 5 o'clock meeting tonight in CMU's University Center, said the school wanted to seize an opportunity for an important discussion about the state of its community.

She said bringing top students and top faculty together in a hard-charging environment has produced tremendous results over the years. "We don't have one culture, because I don't think everyone is struggling," she said.

At the same time, she added, it's clear Ms. Chironis' experiences are not unique to her. "There are too many, even among our faculty and staff, who have a hard time accomplishing and achieving as much as we want while taking care of ourselves," she said.

The stress can begin each fall when arriving freshmen discover they no longer are in an environment where they are the top achiever. Among the freshman class, 75 percent graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school class and half had a grade-point average of 3.75 or higher, according to 2011-12 data.

Ms. Casalegno said Carnegie Mellon was working to instill more balance on its campus even before December's suicide and Ms. Chironis' article. The school in recent years has tried to recruit more students who excel, not based only on numbers but in leadership skills and left brain/right brain intellectual balance.

She said making the campus less rigorous is not the answer, but it might make sense to modify attitudes among students who increasingly want multiple majors and minors, even as they aspire to lead multiple student organizations, conduct research and study abroad.

"Do they need to double major, if double majoring is keeping them from sleeping?" she said.

The Carnegie Mellon sophomore who died in a fall from his campus bedroom window Dec. 7 was the fifth Carnegie Mellon student death ruled a suicide in the past 10 years, the university said. It is a figure that mental health experts say is unfortunate but not outside the expected rate, given the school's population.

Overall, the suicide rate among 18- to 25-year-olds in college is little more than half that of the general population, said Victor Schwartz, a psychiatrist who is medical director for the New York City-based Jed Foundation, which works with universities and students to promote emotional health and prevent suicide on campus.

Even so, campuses see more than 1,100 suicides a year, he said.

Dr. Schwartz said research does not show suicide to be more prevalent at elite colleges and universities, something that would argue against the idea that academic pressure is a lead trigger. "It certainly can be an added underlying stress," he said.

Dr. Schwartz said half the undergraduate suicides occur within two weeks of a relationship breakup.

He and others said they believed Carnegie Mellon was doing the right thing by promoting discussion of mental health issues.

"Why can't we talk about mental illness as easily as we can talk about physical illness?" said Mark McLeod, director of Emory University's counseling and psychological services. "It doesn't make sense."

Like other schools, Carnegie Mellon has staff devoted to counseling and psychological services. Data show that 10 percent of Carnegie Mellon's students use those services in any given year, and 1 in 4 students seeks help while at the campus, rates that have been relatively stable the past decade, Ms. Casalegno said. However, she noted, more students are coming to college with complex and severe mental health needs.

The school carries a variety of links to mental health information on its website, and Ms. Casalegno said the school has been working since June to increase Web content. Parents of arriving freshmen are told during orientation sessions that it is important their children not push themselves to unhealthy extremes.

Resident assistants in training are told to look for signs of trouble ranging from alcohol abuse and bulimia to suicidal tendencies.

Still, some of those who responded to Ms. Chironis' article lashed out at the services available from campus and found blame in everything from the school's approach to workload to the students themselves.

"The culture of the school is such that easing back is almost taboo, and -- you have to admit this -- people are looked down upon even for taking less than a normal course load," wrote one of the more than 160 people who responded online, which included students, alumni and staff.

Another respondent said a sense of camaraderie was sorely missing.

"We don't have sports uniting us," the comment read. "We really connect on a level of mutual stress due to academic rigor. In other words, we are united in our misery. That's why we joke about our problems, it's something everyone can relate to.

"We need to unite on some different, universal and positive level, and to do that CMU needs to help foster a better atmosphere. The question is How?"

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Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1977.


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