Are MIT students at higher risk of committing suicide? It turns out that MIT has the highest suicide rate at 10.2 per 100,000 undergraduate and graduate students from A Boston Globe study of college suicides, 1990-2001. MIT graduate Molly B contests their study:
“My final statistics lesson has to do with something you may have heard — that MIT supposedly has a stratospherically high suicide rate. This is a contention supported by the Boston Globe, a group of stellar journalists, I’m sure, but not so good at the statistics thing. (I can’t find the original Globe article, but the article here makes all the points the original article made.) The Globe basically looked at the MIT suicide rate between 1990 and 1999, compared it to suicide rates at other schools, and decided it was too high. (Let’s just say there’s a reason the Globe article wasn’t published in a scientific journal. Sweeping conclusions backed up by questionable data like that make scientists — including me — want to bang their heads on hard surfaces.)
Now let’s look at some problems with the Globe’s grandiose conclusions:
1. People who successfully commit suicide are significantly more likely to be young and male. In the 1990s, the average MIT student was both those things; since then, the population has famously evened out. (Source here; relevant quote: “In fact, MIT’s suicide rate is below the national average if one adjusts figures for the school’s overwhelmingly male student body [during the years of the study].”)
2. Moreover, science, engineering, and business students have significantly higher suicide rates than do liberal arts students. MIT undergraduates are almost exclusively science, engineering, and/or business majors. Given that both those things are true, one would expect MIT to have a high suicide rate based on those demographics alone. (Source here; relevant quote: “Based on 10 undergraduate suicides over 11 years, the article concludes that suicide is a greater danger at MIT than elsewhere. When one factors in that science and business students have considerably higher suicide rates than liberal arts students, and that male college students kill themselves five times more often than female college students, the figures quoted prove nothing. MIT is cited as currently being composed of 59 percent male students; that fact alone would make the suicide rate differences with most other colleges understandable; but in the early 1990s an even higher percentage of the students at MIT were male.”)
3. The Globe compared MIT to other schools with engineering programs, which is a terrible control. Other schools have engineering programs, yes, but few other schools have 50% of the undergraduate student body majoring in engineering. If you don’t have appropriate controls (and it’s difficult to think of a school which would be a good control — Caltech is science/engineering focused too, but only having one school as the control population would be pretty sketchy.)
4. Statistics like this are terribly vulnerable to small swings in absolute numbers. The absolute number of suicides is very small, and therefore it takes many of them spread over many years to accurately determine whether or not the rate in one place is higher or lower than the rate in another. (Source here; quote: “Because of small number statistics, the “true” suicide rate — i.e., that that would be measured by an very large MIT in the limit of an infinite number of students — is, to 95% confidence, approximately 100,000*(11 +/- 2*sqrt(11)/48,000). At this level, MIT’s suicide rate is consistent with the national average… it would take approximately another thirty three years in order to obtain a measurement of the MIT suicide rate that could be distinguished from the national average at 95% confidence.”)”
And yet, while my analysis is not scientific, I can only wonder about Satto Tonegawa. It’s clear that he was unhappy at MIT but grades were not yet a factor. Perhaps there was undue pressure on him to go to MIT since his father taught there, but maybe this was not where he wanted to go. A highly accomplished musician might be more at home at a music school across the river from MIT. I’ll never know and perhaps the loved ones that he leaves behind will not ever know why he killed himself.
I don’t know his father, but the negative press generated over “inappropriately discourag[ing] neuroscientist Alla Y. Karpova from taking a job at MIT because their research interests overlapped” leaves the impression of a person who was neither generous in spirit or nurturing.
Finally, one thing is apparent. Asian American young women, in particular, have some of the highest suicide rates in the country and the reason is linked to Model Minority pressures from their parents. In fact, if you listen to New American Media story here, suicides by youths are quite common in Asia and are the result of not meeting high parental expectations, and the rise Asian American youth suicides stem from similar pressures.
While the MIT suicides hit home since I live in Boston, there are similar numbers at other prestigious colleges that involve an even high percentage of Asian Americans:
There were three Chinese American suicides at Cal Tech in just three months in 2009. “Three Chinese-American students at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have killed themselves in the last three months. Two died by helium asphyxiation and the cause of death of the third student, though deemed a suicide, is yet to be determined. Their stories have been covered in the Chinese language media, but remain virtually unreported in the mainstream.”
“At Cornell University, for instance, 13 of the 21 student suicide victims between 1996 and 2006 were Asians or Asian Americans. That picture is not complete unless you consider that Asians make up of only 14 percent of the total Cornell student body. Cornell is so concerned that in 2002 it formed a special Asian and Asian American Campus Climate Task Force to look into the reason behind the high number of suicides.”
What do you think the root cause of the rise of Asian American youth suicides are? What can be done? Please leave a comment.
“The 18-year-old son of a Nobel Prize-winning MIT professor was found dead this week in his room at the university, the second MIT undergraduate to be discovered dead in a dormitory this school year, authorities said.
Satto Tonegawa, an accomplished pianist and cellist who as a high school student was selected from thousands of young musicians to perform at Carnegie Hall, had entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a freshman this fall after graduating cum laude from Milton Academy.
Tonegawa’s body was found Tuesday, university and law enforcement officials said. They declined to provide details about the circumstances of his death.
“At this time, it does not appear to be suspicious or involve foul play,’’ said Cara O’Brien, a spokeswoman for the Middlesex district attorney’s office.
She said the cause of death is pending an autopsy with the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
In September, Nicolas Del Castillo, a sophomore from Bogota, Colombia, was found dead in his dorm after he hanged himself, just three days before classes began…
The last suicide at MIT before this year was the death of Kabelo Zwane in 2009.” from Boston.com
“Tonegawa is the second MIT student to have died in less than two months. Nicolas E. Del Castillo, a sophomore, was found dead in his East Campus dormitory room on Sept. 4 in an apparent suicide…
Tonegawa was an avid musician, playing both piano and cello. He attended the Milton Academy before coming to MIT this fall, according to the Academy’s website, and graduated cum laude. Like his father, Tonegawa had an interest in the life sciences — he worked in the Orr-Weaver lab at the Whitehead Institute as a high-school student.
Prof. Tonegawa, recipient of the 1987 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, is a controversial figure. In 2006, Tonegawa resigned as director of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory after an investigation found he had inappropriately discouraged neuroscientist Alla Y. Karpova from taking a job at MIT because their research interests overlapped.” from The Tech (MIT Online Newspaper)