This past October my wife lost a family member—someone who was very close to both of us.
We quickly jumped on the first plane to California. I hastily composed an email to my advisor, letting him know that I would have to leave town for a few weeks. His message back was succinct—short enough to be read from my iPhone lock screen: "Very sorry to hear -- a tough time for your family. Please take whatever time you need."
Being in California meant talking with out-of-town family and helping with memorial arrangements. We shared stories over bad coffee and kept each other company. Amazingly, not once did I feel pressured to think about my research. I knew that life would carry on at MIT without me for a few weeks, and that deadlines would be met as my colleagues picked up the slack.
Mental wellness is certainly a popular topic of discussion at MIT; like any top-tier school, its students are overburdened by work and frequently stretched thin by hobby projects or extracurricular activities. MIT is often labeled as isolating (which it can be) and stressful (which it most certainly is).
To combat this problem, MIT has myriad resources for dealing with mental health, including the REFS, a confidential, peer-run service for talking about and managing stress. I have no problem saying that I have sought out a number of these services while here at MIT. Even so, it's a known problem that students frequently won't seek out these programs when they recognize that they have a problem.
In addition to the official sources of support that MIT provides, there's one thing that often goes unmentioned in conversations about mental health: Community. While in California, my wife and I were met with cards and flowers from our friends from MIT. They even sent us a board game so we could pass the time.
Upon returning to MIT, the support was enormous. Friends who heard I was back dropped by my desk to ask how I was doing or took me out to lunch. Even a friend of mine who is constantly in 'startup-founder mode' took time out of his busy schedule to talk when he sensed I was stressed.
My advisor’s short message has meant a great deal to me and has since served as a reminder that my mental wellbeing is a priority of his. It was no small task to redistribute my work to my coworkers, yet everyone understood what I was going through and stepped up without hesitation. I've seen this happen in a variety of contexts.
Whenever I had a tough time in a class, one of my colleagues would tell me that they’d been there and help me work through a problem. Friends going through their Ph.D. qualifying exams are similarly met with support, either in the form of impromptu review sessions or freshly baked cookies.
As a veteran graduate student, I've slowly become one of the people on the other side—helping friends and colleagues through difficulty—and have joined the REFS program as a counselor.
This, to me, is what the MIT community is about. Whenever someone is having a tough time, support is there.