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Was MIT or her parents to blame for a suicide?
April 27, 2002 12:24 PM   Subscribe

Was MIT or her parents to blame for a suicide?
Challenging NYTimes article on the suicide of Elizabeth Shin, an over-acheiving college student. With the increasing focus on student achievement from earlier and earlier ages, it's clear that children can be deeply affected. How do we, as a society, raise children to standards that we expect without pressure-cooking them to damage or worse?
posted by gen (54 comments total)

 
It is clear to me that her parents saw only what they wanted to see and that MIT didn't share information with the parents early enough for them to intervene. On the one hand, it's good to see MIT doing more to change the way they interact with their students, but it is sad that it takes these suicides for them to react. Without the lawsuits, I doubt MIT would have made as many changes as they have done so. Whether they are the right changes to help students at risk is a different question.

I still don't know how to balance the demands of society with the best interests of our children. Can we raise children to be high-achieving without damaging them along the way?
posted by gen at 12:32 PM on April 27, 2002


Parents. Or, certainly not MIT.

By definition she was responsible for her suicide -- an incredible story. Life out of balance, yes, but she certainly had some internal condition that led her to taking her life.
posted by Dick Paris at 12:59 PM on April 27, 2002


There are many ways to be 'high-acheivers', and humans have a natural desire to improve themselves. It's when parents are focused on achievements is certain academic fields that creates that kind of pressure on our children. Rather then letting them explore the many facets of their interests, parents stream their education before they even have a chance to realize other potentials that may not lie in the arts.

I've always believed that if you're good at something, and you work hard at it, you will create your own opportunities, or the appropriate opportunities will find you. I am sure that there are many people that can attest to that from their own experience. If you're good, someone will want you and need you. Not your degree.
posted by margaretlam at 1:03 PM on April 27, 2002


Descriptions of the 1950s at Northwestern, and an article in one of their alumni magazines about how Northwestern students used to be so much more romantic, have also set me to thinking about college and mental health. How much easier mental health must have been when half the campus was supposedly only there to get their Mrs. degrees, with a social life as primary obligation rather than good grades. The only place I've encountered anything comparable as an adult was in a coffeehouse near Yale, where a group of senior girls was discussing their househunting trips with their fiancees. Even so, these were driven young women, and being married to them would clearly be no picnic!

"Nonelite schools also believe that their students arrive at college stressed out by a high-school experience described as replicating ''the adult lifestyle too much too early,'' ... A greater number of them are working, to earn tuition money or simply to buy the extras that have become necessities: laptops and cars. Their school day starts at 7:15; their workday begins after school; their studying time -- more pressured because of new statewide standards of learning and graduation requirements -- stretches past midnight."

Yes, young people collapse from overwork too. Surprise.

How can someone who, after much hard work and a Masters, has finally gotten trained to the academic level needed to pursue an elite school's degree, ever hope to compete with the people so carefully groomed from birth? Answer: you may do well, but you can't compete academically on an even playing field with the rich, unless you're born a genius at one specific thing and do nothing else. You can't keep studying until you get where the rich kids are unless you become a professor. Education is rationed. Financial aid covers one BA, one Masters, one PhD, and that's it. To my dismay, I discovered that I was not eligible for retraining as a displaced worker after 9-11 due to a Masters degree. You can go into debt repeatedly for education, and will be urged to do so at every turn.

"Colleges are grappling to minister to what administrators describe as an undergraduate population that requires both more coddling and more actual mental health care than ever before. "

Yes, we are all expected to work full time, somehow make it through school on the side, and stay up late filing resumes, somehow meeting our family obligations in the process and paying off the credit cards. Right.
posted by sheauga at 1:30 PM on April 27, 2002


or you could do something else.
posted by jeb at 1:35 PM on April 27, 2002


She was 19, people. She was responsible for herself.
posted by NortonDC at 1:55 PM on April 27, 2002


or you could do something else.
posted by jeb at 2:02 PM on April 27, 2002


No kidding. She was over 18. If instead of MIT she'd moved cross country, gotten a job, and rented an apartment, would her parents say that the apartment manager, her boss, and U-haul should have prevented her immolation? What is it about college that suspends taking responsibility for one's actions?

Yes, her parents paid for her education. That should entitle them to see her report card.
posted by ilsa at 4:26 PM on April 27, 2002


Encouraging kids to test themselves and take risks-- great idea! When we too become the older generation and the university administrators, it will be our turn to taunt and dare young adults to push past their limits, and then tell them it's their own fault if they wipe out. Let's just absolve ourselves of all responsibility right now. MIT undergrads, it's like this: "We'll always have next year's crop of whiz kids available to work on the speculative research projects which produce patentable and licenseable technologies. Shape up or ship out-- if you go out feet first, that's your problem!"

After all, the scientifically designed Uberman sleep schedule is freely available on the web to anyone who needs to work 20 hours/day.
posted by sheauga at 5:05 PM on April 27, 2002


Some of these responses are really cold. The girl was 19 -- I see this not as she's legally of adult age, I see in terms of, well, she's still a teenager.

Not all, but some (many?) college students still need and want adult supervision and hand-holding. Most don't want to ask for it, though.

It's a tragedy. She was displaying warning signs and cries for help. It seems clear to me, from that article only, that she knew that she was not in control of her own mental health. She wanted her friends to intervene and they tried. Some people intervened, not enough was done.

I discussed this all morning with my sister and her boyfriend, two MIT alumni and defenders. They side with the students mentioned who think that the institution "overreacted" to the case of Scott Kruger and fear that MIT might overreact again in this case. They don't think that freshmen should be required to live on campus.

I don't think the important question here is should a college notify an "adult" student's parents of such warning signs of mental illness (and other problems) but what is the appropriate response to this type of tragedy? should policies be changed after a single incident?
posted by palegirl at 5:11 PM on April 27, 2002


She was responsible.
posted by delmoi at 5:22 PM on April 27, 2002


sheauga wrote:

MIT undergrads, it's like this: "We'll always have next year's crop of whiz kids available to work on the speculative research projects which produce patentable and licenseable technologies. Shape up or ship out-- if you go out feet first, that's your problem!"

Having done the undergrad program at MIT from 1993-1997, I can tell you that's not something I ever felt. I graduated in 4 years, and yes it's a pressure cooker, and yes some people will bad mouth it, but I never wanted for a support system - from my immediate circle of friends, to my professors, to professionals at the institute. I also never felt like the institute was hustling me out or didn't care about me as an individual.

MIT has come a long way from Pepper White's The Idea Factory. Yes, the reaction to Scott Kruger's death was an overreaction , but some of it was warranted - Freshmen cannot be expected to find a place to spend the next four years of their life in their first week to ten days at MIT. Most of the changes that have survived time have made MIT a better place

The best thing I can tell you of my four years there is that MIT really taught me to think - not just how to solve a problem, but to think. It did so by forcing me to act like an adult - knowing there was a safety net somewhere below me, but not close enough that I could see it
posted by rshah21 at 5:51 PM on April 27, 2002


Glad to hear it, rshah21. My experiences with MIT and MIT people have been positive, and I couldn't quite believe it would be quite such a cold-hearted situation.
posted by sheauga at 6:03 PM on April 27, 2002


Psychiatrists are obligated to call the police if a patient is suicidal. The patient must be put into supervision. This girl was cutting herself, overdosing on drugs, admitting to friends and counselors that she was having suicidal thoughts, wrote about them in emails that were sent to the dean on multiple occasions, and was turned away by counselors outside of the school on the grounds that they didn't have enough time to devote to her situation. More than that. There's a huge litany of stuff that happenned to this girl that's so long I can't even list it all here.

If a school doesn't do something or contact someone at that point when do they?
posted by xammerboy at 6:10 PM on April 27, 2002


should policies be changed after a single incident?

No. I probably side with your alum sister. This story is not about MIT and the pitfalls of being young and gifted. It is about a girl who put too much pressure on herself, aided implicitly by parents who, I could admit, perhaps had no clear idea of how their love for their children could be interpreted as conditional. She was going to crack. It was a matter of when. The parents are looking for someone else to blame because that is the easier course.

Yes, it would have been good if MIT had done more. But, who is to say that would have saved her life. She was already crying out for help in high school - the parents knew this and ignored the signs.

Ask yourself this: After reading the article, weren't you left a bit concerned about Christine - regardless of what school she goes to?

Can we raise children to be high-achieving without damaging them along the way?

Yes and No. Ask yourself what it is you are asking for. How about raising a child who loves to learn instead of a child who loves to study?

I would raise my children to have a natural, unguided curiosity about the world. I would tell them constantly that they are brilliant and that they have the power to do anything they want to do with their lives. I would make sure that they have access to all the books, musical instruments or other resources they may need to develop their natural skills. I would teach them that things are worth doing well because they bring you satisfaction not because you should pursue someone else's idea of success.
posted by vacapinta at 6:32 PM on April 27, 2002


These are all worthy goals, and I applaud them. But as a parent, I have to ask...how? I've never known so much about how to raise kids as I did before I had them, if you know what I'm saying. Kids are such complex creatures, and it's terrifyingly hard to know if you're doing the right thing.
posted by rodii at 6:39 PM on April 27, 2002


I dont claim to have the answers. I'm only partially involved in raising a nephew. But the article made me suspect that these parents practiced that particular form of extremism which involves using your children as a vehicle for wish-fulfillment.

Be wary of saying things like "Of course, you'll get into MIT. It is the best school on Earth." or "Art is ok but Science is the way to do something important with your life" Some kids (rebels) will take these pronouncements and head in the other direction. But, it was clear that Elizabeth took her parents very seriously. Lines like "My friends, their children don't talk to them about gay" make me doubt that she felt comfortable enough with them to really open up to them.

I am watching my nephew become an adult. He is a great skateboarder (unlike his uncle) and a talented chess player (unlike his uncle). He asks me about Harvard and I shrug my shoulders and tell him - "Its a good school but its cold on the East Coast. The best thing about it is the friends I made there."
posted by vacapinta at 7:47 PM on April 27, 2002


I would tell them constantly that they are brilliant and that they have the power to do anything they want to do with their lives.

But most are not brilliant, and are destined for excruciatingly circumscribed lives. Is nurturing a false ego the healthiest way to motivate children?

(Pet peeve - sorry for the interruption.)
posted by Opus Dark at 7:51 PM on April 27, 2002


Why the hell does someone have to be "to blame" for this woman's suicide? In my opinion, _most_ suicides are nothing more than the most terrible manifestation of any of several psychiatric diseases. It's terrible that this woman died, just as it is terrible when someone so young and with so much to live for dies of cancer, or AIDS, or meningitis, etc.

This is not to say that we should not look for things that were contributing to her state of mind when she decided to kill herself, which is what most of you seem to be saying. What I have a problem with is this idea that "she was responsible" (delmoi) and the unfortunately still pervasive opinion that suicide is somehow "taking the easy way out."
posted by dr_emory at 8:07 PM on April 27, 2002


I went away to Oregon State University when I was 20 years old, after two years at a community college. I came home just before my 21st birthday. Why? I thought about jumping out of my 4th floor dorm window; there was a nice ledge and everything.

I went to counseling. They wanted to point me in the right direction academically, not talk about the fact that I was the most depressed I'd ever been in my life. I talked to friends. They told me to hurry up and get my homework done so that we could go out to dinner...

OSU wasn't even a pressure cooker school. Hell, it was a frat school, and you got -bonus points for showing up- to some classes.

Look, when you go away to school it's a total uprooting, no matter what. There's some that thrive in that situation, there's some that do not. I had all of the underpinnings of my personality and acheivement torn out from under me - My parents helping me concentrate on my homework, the comfortable kitchen table to do homework at, the nice warm house, so on so forth. There's no privacy in a dorm. On top of that, if your neighbor wants to listen to his acoustically perfect 180 decibal sound system at 1 am next door, you can't do anything about it. I can't survive in that situation. Apparently, Chrstine couldn't either.

It seems that coming home wasn't an option for the way Christine felt. The power that parents have over their kids in that situation is amazing. It isn't just that Christine couldn't talk to her parents - if she did, psychologically, she'd never be able to live it down. I didn't let my parents know that I was in trouble until it was almost too late. I flunked a midterm and didn't know what else to do... didn't have anyone to talk to, so on my bike ride home, I called my mom. It probably saved my life.

So. Who was responsible.
MIT - Not really. They could allow frosh to live off campus. Schools that do, in my opinion, are less social but are much healthier academically. Portland State U (my current school) is a great example -- it's an organization focused on educating students, not acting like parents. Also, schools need to be more exclusive. Where the hell did we get the idea that higher education is for everybody? It's dilluting it for the rest of us.
Elizabeth - Absofrickinlutely not. And I wish someone had told her this before it was too late. She sounds like someone I would have liked to meet.
The Shrinks - About half of the responsibility. If someone walks into your office who is suicidally depressed, and you're in a profession where you're supposed to care about people, goddamnit, you care for that person. Or you get out of your profession. Anyone who's 'too busy' to care for someone like that needs to have their license revoked.
The Parents - Only about a quarter of the blame. I can't imagine coming to America with very little and making enough money to put kids through school that way. They've got to be driven people and they tried to pass their values on to their kids, but they drove it a little too hard.
American Society - Yeah, we got some problems. And they're going to get worse. Not everybody can have a job that really turns them on. If you think college admission is selective, you should see what most companies (especially smaller companies) do to job applicants for a key position. So if you're commonplace and don't have any special skills or special smarts, you've gotta do just about anything to get ahead, including starting to learn whatever at an insanely early age. The problem is that some people can't handle it, and there is no longer a respected societal outlet (read: trade/guild mastery) for educated people who can't handle pressure cookers.

The scary thing is: I can't see anything we can do to fix it.
posted by SpecialK at 11:07 PM on April 27, 2002


Right, every one but the adult that chose the course of action for herself. Of course.
posted by NortonDC at 11:36 PM on April 27, 2002


Thank you for the testimony, SpecialK. Glad you survived.
posted by rodii at 7:27 AM on April 28, 2002


Right, every one but the adult that chose the course of action for herself. Of course.

Norton, you're welcome to keep believing in the illusion of the absolute free will, but if you've ever been depressed or conflicted, you know that it's just not as simple as that. Hell, even if you've ever been deeply concentrated or "in the zone" in some art or sport, you know that not every element of You is directly, logically, rationally prescribed and then followed. There are emotional reactions, there are subconscious reactions, there are even kind of unconscious reactions - and these things can absolutely be, in fact almost must be, affected by your environment.

It's not a question of blame, it's a question of responsibility for future cases like this. Suicidal people cannot be depended on to take responsibility for not killing themselves. Parents should make sure that the encouragement they're giving their kids is not actually pressure. Counselors should give suicidal patients the care they need. And it would be nice if society as a whole could be more appreciative of individuals somehow, though it is hard to see how it would work, especially with people like Norton around :)
posted by mdn at 9:29 AM on April 28, 2002


Elizabeth obviously had a grave mental illness, which would have manifested itself regardless of where she went to college, or even whether she went to college.

However MIT is a pressure cooker of a place with a higher-than-normal percentage of kids on the eccentric, under-socialized, and or extreme edge, for whom suicidal ideation as a result of getting mediocre grades might be less alarming than it would be at Brown or Vassar.

Indeed, Elizabeth, being on the fencing team and having boyfriends probably seemed on the normal to better than normal side at MIT, where most mental health problems tend to be with kids with moderate-to-severe Aspergers who make no friends and forget to eat or shower once their moms aren't around to crack the whip on them.

Ultimately, I blame the parents. They knew, or should have known, that their daughter needed much more supervision and treatment.
posted by MattD at 10:58 AM on April 28, 2002


mdn - Maybe I know a few things about situations like hers first hand. Maybe I was National Merit. Maybe I pulled what would be about 1500 on SAT's today. Maybe I busted my ass in something like engineering in a big, impersonal school. Maybe I had really bleak times. Maybe I had sequential semesters where one was dean's list and the other was a 0.4 GPA.

Maybe, huh?

And maybe I don't see infantilizing 19-year-olds as the way to be more appreciative of individuals.
posted by NortonDC at 11:50 AM on April 28, 2002


NortonDC - I don't think it's about infantilizing the young woman, or the ridiculous assumption that being smart / a National Merit scholar means you have less of a struggle in college. (Just pile on the standard load of coursework out of sequence, without adequate preparation or prerequisites, and even an Einstein can be snowed under.)

The gist of it is what mdn said: "Suicidal people cannot be depended on to take responsibility for not killing themselves."

SpecialK has made an important observation, that a total lack of privacy and sleep deprivation doesn't work for everyone. Most college dorms were designed for students under old-fashioned, boarding-school style supervision, which meant no boyfriends or girlfriends ever stayed the night. Paying good money for a room, and getting voluntarily evicted whenever you or your roommate have a love affair is very disruptive of personal routines. This situation needs to be addressed openly. The old-fashioned "courtship parlor" approach has a lot to recommend it.

One big hurdle for suicide intervention efforts with college students is that their social lives and relationships are very changeable, and frequently no single person really knows what's going on with them. The student's family members, who might be more likely to notice something going wrong, are off the scene. The most positive things to come out of this situation will be new policies to help universities keep family members apprised of their student's well-being, and a bit more willingness on all sides to stop pushing young people past their limits.
posted by sheauga at 12:38 PM on April 28, 2002


Maybe I know a few things about situations like hers first hand. Maybe I was National Merit. Maybe I pulled what would be about 1500 on SAT's today. Maybe I busted my ass...

Being a high achiever and being depressed do not necessarily go together. Plenty of poor slobs are depressed and plenty of high achievers are not. I don't know if you were depressed. If you were, then you know that it isn't always logical or rational - you can be extremely depressed at a point that objectively looks like the best time of your life. Perhaps you know that and your comment was just a self-hating stab, or a depressive, "I haven't taken the easy way out yet, why should you get to" sort of comment.

And maybe I don't see infantilizing 19-year-olds as the way to be more appreciative of individuals.

I don't consider it infantilizing to let people know that they will be still loved even if they don't go to MIT.
posted by mdn at 12:43 PM on April 28, 2002


The scary thing is: I can't see anything we can do to fix it.

I thank you for the testimony, too, man: but really I don't think that lawsuits are the right way to fix this tragedy.
posted by matteo at 12:57 PM on April 28, 2002


mdn - I don't consider it infantilizing to let people know that they will be still loved even if they don't go to MIT.

That is true, and nothing I've said runs counter to that sentiment.

I do believe that pointing the finger at every one but this adult for her own choice is hugely infantilizing.

Suicidal people cannot be depended on to take responsibility for not killing themselves.

This is an essentially meaningless sentence. Try to state what you wanted to say with affirmatives instead of a stream of negatives. Your use of negatives is masking several dubious assumptions.
posted by NortonDC at 1:48 PM on April 28, 2002


I do believe that pointing the finger at every one but this adult for her own choice is hugely infantilizing.

Well, so that's not infantilizing 19 year olds, that's infantilizing dead people.

This is an essentially meaningless sentence. Try to state what you wanted to say with affirmatives instead of a stream of negatives.

Telling a suicidal person, deal with it, will not help. If someone has gotten to a point where they are considering ending their life, it's no longer about their moral responsibility not to. The sentence is only essentially meaningless because this fact is obvious in the word "suicidal", which was my point.
posted by mdn at 6:38 PM on April 28, 2002


it's no longer about their moral responsibility not to

Try again. (This is not a grammar flame. There's a point.)

Well, so that's not infantilizing 19 year olds, that's infantilizing dead people.

My main motivation for participating is not the memory of this dead woman, but the future of the living. I find the infantilization of adults by externalizing culpability for their actions deeply troubling.
posted by NortonDC at 7:16 PM on April 28, 2002


Look, Norton, I already explained that my point was that to me the word suicidal already means that a person is not capable of taking full autonomy / responsibility. We can disagree about that, but asking me to rephrase it is not worth your time. If a person is suicidal, telling them "stop being a baby" is really not useful. I'm glad it works for you, but sometimes some people need support. I don't think it makes them "infants". It just makes them human.
posted by mdn at 8:43 PM on April 28, 2002


NortonDC, I'm all for being maddening, but you gotta know that the neg-averse thing (Sailor Moon, yo) is mostly just an annoying stunt. I mean, take "Thou shalt not kill" and wind me up an equal no-neg-at-all just-as-short replacement.

So far, all you've done is to declare that, in your opinion, 19 year-old successful suicidees are, on some level, responsible for their own dirt naps. If you want to elaborate, great. If not, equally great. But why nag a rephrase from a non-believer?
posted by Opus Dark at 8:56 PM on April 28, 2002


I think that the most troubling part of the story is actually the lack of continuity of care. If Ms. Shin had been seen by one doctor who was able to make judgments about her condition on a continuum, then perhaps a medical intervention could have been made in enough time to derail her suicide. Instead, she seems to have been assessed by whatever doctor or social worker was on call at any given time, and only in light of the immediate circumstances.

If I were rushed to the hospital with a terrible headache, I'd be very upset if no one could be bothered to find out that I had been brought in previously with vertigo, and again after losing consciousness, and therefore needed something more than a couple of aspirin and a pat on the back.
posted by Dreama at 10:06 PM on April 28, 2002


I had the same reaction to the story as Dreama.

But I also have another concern: while it may be that some college students truly need more "parenting," be it from the school or from their actual families, what about the ones who actually thrive on the independence? From the article, I really can't tell how things were with Ms. Shin and her family, but what about other students -- students whose parents may be oppressive or worse? I worry that the trend toward "parenting," such as it is, could hurt them and prevent them from finally finding peace/happiness/equilibrium away from home. But I can't think of a solution that would address everyone's problems...
posted by sueinnyc at 10:43 PM on April 28, 2002


"Thou shalt not kill," avoids double negatives. Neither of mdn's attempts has. Her awkward construction is masking several broad and unsupported assumptions about this. Nothing substantive can be addressed without first examining those assumptions. Stating what she actually believes (instead of identifying what she does not believe) is the first step toward real understanding.
posted by NortonDC at 6:32 AM on April 29, 2002


I'd like to hear how the double negatives mask several broad and unsupported assumptions. Otherwise this looks like a descent into nitpicking in lieu of an argument. mdn seems perfectly clear to me.
posted by rodii at 6:53 AM on April 29, 2002


If I could know for sure what they are from her extant comments, I wouldn't have to ask her to state them. I can infer some of them, but that's me putting words in her mouth and I'm not looking to build a strawman.

We're trying to have a discussion of values and responsibilities and freedoms, but mdn is stating what she doesn't believe, which doesn't let you get very far. There's lots of stuff I don't believe, but listing it all isn't exactly worthwhile.

If I state a proposition, and someone else says "That's untrue," nothing much has been accomplished. If someone else says "This other truth prevents your proposition from being true," then we've all learned something.

1000 comments, and counting...
posted by NortonDC at 7:36 AM on April 29, 2002


Nothing substantive can be addressed without first examining those assumptions.

Please, examine away.

As I've stated numerous times, I believe this to be a simple disagreement. Being suicidal, in my opinion, is getting to a state of mind where you are so hopeless and pained that you don't give a shit about what your responsibility to the world is. Therefore, some of the responsibility for that life shifts to other people for whom that life has some worth - parents, community, ultimately perhaps society. IMO, these circles should bear some responsibility even for non-suicidal people, but in those cases "individual" would be listed first. In the case of suicidal individuals, that life does not have worth for them; they will not protect it from themselves.

You call it infantilising. I think you are conflating two different kinds of need. Providing help to them is not treating suicidal people like infants. It is treating them like suicidal people.
posted by mdn at 8:04 AM on April 29, 2002


[Norton DC rants about double negatives:]

"Nothing substantive can be addressed without first examining those assumptions."

Physician, heal thyself.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:45 AM on April 29, 2002


Claim #1: Her awkward construction is masking several broad and unsupported assumptions about this.

...

Claim #2: If I could know for sure what they are from her extant comments, I wouldn't have to ask her to state them. I can infer some of them, but that's me putting words in her mouth and I'm not looking to build a strawman.

Strawman or not, you want all the benefits of having made an argument without actually having to make the argument? This is going pretty far even for you. I think you should either retract Claim #1 or show your cards. Or admit that you're arguing just to argue.
posted by rodii at 9:06 AM on April 29, 2002


Wow, rodii you are really spoiling for a fight. Knock yourself out. I'm going to think about it some before addressing mdn's latest. But, in the interim, feel free to keep lobbing potshots my way if it'll entertain you.
posted by NortonDC at 9:26 AM on April 29, 2002


People who are clinically depressed / suicidal are no longer capable of acting responsibly for themselves. If they are to recover from this condition, someone else must take responsibility for them. Without intervention, there is little likelyhood that they will recover.

This is what mdn is saying, and she is correct.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:45 AM on April 29, 2002


Hello? Cable company?
I'd like to exchange my subscription to NortonDC's Socratic Interactive Learning Channel for a year's worth of the Phlegm Channel, please.
posted by Opus Dark at 9:49 AM on April 29, 2002


DevilsAdvocate
>>Nothing substantive can be addressed without first examining those assumptions.
>
>Physician, heal thyself.

Good catch.

Substantive discussion requires examining those assumptions.
posted by NortonDC at 10:40 AM on April 29, 2002


People who are clinically depressed / suicidal are no longer capable of acting responsibly for themselves.

Mild pedantry: There are many levels of clinical depression. Only the worst cases cause the patient to become completely incapable of acting responsibly for themselves, although in all cases the "I get by with a little help from my friends" prescription is usually a good one.
posted by aaron at 10:58 AM on April 29, 2002


Unlike five fresh fish and mdn, I'm not ready assume that the suicidal are necessarily irrational. In fact, I've already encountered two unrelated items today that undercut such an assumption, one here on MetaFilter and another in Ebert's discussion of a classic Italian film. I reject the assumption that deciding to end one's life is automatic proof of irrationality. My understanding of mdn's position is that her position require's this as a starting point. I don't share that belief. If that were to be a demonstrated truth, then it would form a valid link in a chain of reasoning. Unsupported, it is just a statement of faith, unlikely to sway those who are not already sharing that belief.

It's possible I'm conflating mdn's and fff's positions. If so, I apologize. I do share the belief that her mental health professinal had a responsibility to provide care, but that responsibility does not deepen or lessen this women's culpability for her own actions. As far as I know from her case, no one has alleged she was delusional or otherwise irrational.
posted by NortonDC at 11:00 AM on April 29, 2002


I'm not ready assume that the suicidal are necessarily irrational.

I should probably have addressed this sooner, as I did expect you to say this. But let's simplify; instead of arguing over the "rationality", let's just look at whether this was a good choice or a bad choice, whether it was positive or negative. Most people affected by this feel that it was a bad choice. Her parents, her friends, her community and society at large mostly feel that this was a loss, not a gain.

A gunman who goes on a shooting spree and then kills himself may have made the right choice, or at least, a right choice, at that point (arguable of course, but at least some people will agree to that). Very few people think that this woman made the right choice.

If we start from the assumption that many people would benefit (those who loved her, and those who may have benefited from her work / thought / whatever she was about, in the future) from her remaining alive, then it is to our advantage to keep her from killing herself.

You seem to work off the assumption that an individual is an island, that his private decisions have no effect on others and that he should not be affected by them. I disagree with this. You also seem to think that a deeply depressed person is capable of reasoning themselves out of the pit. I feel I have the authority to tell you that you are simply wrong about that.

I know you'll disagree, but not everything is ruled by reason. There are a lot of chemicals in there and sometimes experiences or situations or just genetics (mostly likely combination) throw you out of whack. Whether a suicidal is "rational" is really kind of irrelevant. The question is, is it good for those involved? The suicide is not the only person affected, and intervention may solve the problems in ways the suicidal person simply could not see.

And telling a suicidal person, pull it together, is often just repeating the exact things that person continually tells herself -& continually fails to come through on, which just makes her feel more worthless. That can easily become a kind of downward spiral. Yes, sometimes people can pull themselves out and sometimes they need to be pulled out.

As individuals, we should all try to be responsible for ourselves. As members of a family or community, we should all try to take some responsibility for those we care for. And as members of a society, we should all have minimal concern for our fellow citizens. Sometimes, in difficult situations, some people will need more care than others. We're all different, and we have different thresholds and abilities. I guess I lean towards Hume on this...
posted by mdn at 11:41 AM on April 29, 2002


mdn - "It's not a question of blame, it's a question of responsibility for future cases like this. "

NortonDC - "...that responsibility does not deepen or lessen this women's culpability for her own actions."

I think you two may be talking past each other somewhat here. Let's take an analogy which may be a little less emotionally fraught. Suppose you have some campers in a national park who have gotten stranded in a blizzard and need to be rescued or they'll freeze/starve to death. The campers may or may not be to blame for their predicament (maybe they ignored the weather forecast, maybe they were just unlucky.) Certainly the park rangers & the rescue agencies are not to blame for the predicament. However, the rangers & rescue workers are responsible for saving the campers, because they're the ones with the resources to do so. If I'm understanding mdn's position, she would regard the severely depressed/suicidal individual as analogous to the stranded campers - needing outside assistance to get out of the situation. NortonDC - I can certainly see why you wouldn't want the rescue workers to be branded as the guilty party if the rescue fails, but I don't think mdn was talking about blame/guilt/culpability - just about responsibility, which is a different thing.

NortonDC - "I reject the assumption that deciding to end one's life is automatic proof of irrationality."

In general, theoretical terms, I agree with you. Oregon's assisted suicide statute was passed by people who agree with you. In this specific case, however, we're discussing a young woman who was, judging from the evidence, depressed, confused, overwhelmed and in only tenuous control of herself. Her suicide does not appear to have been a carefully thought out decision based on rational principles, but rather the fatal result of a depression she doubtless would have lifted herself out of if she knew how. Who knows, maybe no person outside of herself could have saved her, even if they had all the facts. I think what mdn is saying is that those who were involved with her (parents, school, friends, psychologists) have the responsibility to try, whether she was 19 or 59.
posted by tdismukes at 1:43 PM on April 29, 2002


tdismukes has nailed it.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:17 PM on April 29, 2002


Wow, rodii you are really spoiling for a fight.

I'm trying to decide if this is intentionally or unintentionally funny.
posted by rodii at 3:20 PM on April 29, 2002


tdismukes, fff, thanks for better articulating what I was trying to get at.
posted by mdn at 6:40 PM on April 29, 2002


mdn - let's just look at whether this was a good choice or a bad choice

No, let's not, because that's not the question. The question is whether or not it was her choice to make.

If we start from the assumption that many people would benefit... from her remaining alive, then it is to our advantage to keep her from killing herself.

If we say that many people would benefit from taking my car, that does not grant them the right to do so, and Elizabeth's life was more her own to direct than my car will ever be.

You seem to work off the assumption that an individual is an island, that his private decisions have no effect on others and that he should not be affected by them.

You seem to assume a lot about me. It has effects, but those effects do not mean that her self determination is to be abrogated.

You also seem to think that a deeply depressed person is capable of reasoning themselves out of the pit.

You keep going after this when I have never stated anything of the kind.

As members of a family or community, we should all try to take some responsibility for those we care for.

No, wrong, deeply wrong. We have responsibilities to them, not responsibility for them.

tdismukes - Regarding the campers, again there is a key distinction: the rescue crew has responsibilities to the campers, but they are not responsible for them.

The word "blame" that you reject is at the core of what I object to about the arguments in the thread itself ("Was MIT or her parents to blame for a suicide?") and the comments that followed that opening. I do not dispute that many people had responsibilities to Elizabeth, but that does not change the fact that Elizabeth was responsible for Elizabeth.
posted by NortonDC at 7:21 PM on April 29, 2002


Sigh.

The question is whether or not it was her choice to make.

When one is suffering a major depressive bout "choice" does not exist. To quote M-W, "choice suggests the opportunity or privilege of choosing freely."

In a major depressive episode, one's brain chemistry is so fucked-up that there's no freedom involved. One is incarcerated -- it seems more appropriately descriptive than "incapacitated" -- with hopelessness, self-loathing, and guilt.

When one reaches the point where the ideation of self-harm becomes the act of self-harm, all hope of choice is lost: one is an automaton programmed for self-destruction.

Make no mistake: depression is not a choice, and the actions one takes while depressed are not freely chosen.

To draw a pair of accurate analogies:

If an infant tumbles to its death down a staircase at home, one does not hold the baby responsible for its death, but one would very likely hold the parents responsible.

But if an infant dies of SIDS while sleeping on its father's lap while he answers his email, one does not hold the baby nor the parents responsible for its death.

Likewise, a person suffering major depressive disorder can not be held particularly responsible for his or her actions or inaction. When depressed, one's ability to choose is about as limited as that of an infant.

Whether anyone else should be held responsible would depend entirely on whether they are aware of the severity of the sufferer's depression. If you know someone is suffering major depression, it is irresponsible and cowardly to dismiss it as an S.E.P. (Somebody Else's Problem).

In the case of Elizabeth, it's unlikely that her friends fully understood what depression is all about and how to assist.

Further, it's very unlikely that they would have the guts to drag her ass to a doctor and insist that she be put on meds, and then follow-up to ensure she took them long enough to start seeing results.

It isn't easy to help the depressed. You have to be willing to take control for them. Though most of us have no difficulty doing so when dealing with babies and children, few of us are able to muster the conviction and courage to do so with adults.

If there's blame to be assigned, it can be assigned to a society that stigmatizes depression, operates in ignorance of its causes, consequences, and solutions, and fails to look after people who are incapable of looking after themselves.

Responsibilities "to" and responsibilities "for" is just a silly semantic game that makes no difference in the end: what is important is that someone step in and take control when someone else is suffering a major depressive episode. Call it "to" or call it "for," just as long as there's some action behind it.

If there isn't, the Elizabeths of this world die.

Which is a shame, 'cause a few little pills would have restored her to normal and let her succeed in life. As a MIT student, she must have had some brains and ability going for her.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:18 PM on April 29, 2002


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