Related topics

Suicides Move Harvard to Cut Stress

October 20, 1998

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (AP) _ Three suicides by graduate students in the last two years have prompted Harvard University to take steps to cut the stress the students face. One change was actually suggested in a young man’s suicide note.

Too many of the school’s 3,400 graduate students felt they were overworked and isolated and had few places to turn to for support, the university acknowledged. In all, the school has lost eight grad students to suicide since 1980.

``The expectations are enormous, and the stakes are enormous for graduate students,″ said Margot Gill, administrative dean for Harvard’s graduate school.

Harvard is making overall changes, and that each department is addressing its own issues of morale and stress, she said. The changes will particularly affect graduate students in the sciences.

One change for chemistry students follows the recommendation that Jason Altom made in his suicide note last August before he swallowed a lethal dose of potassium cyanide he took home from a laboratory. He was 27.

Altom, who was working toward a doctorate in chemistry, criticized the assigning of graduate researchers to a single faculty adviser _ the sole judge of the student’s progress and the job recommendation the student eventually gets.

He recommended each student have a panel of advisers and said, ``If I had such a committee now, I know things would be different.″

The new chairman of the chemistry department, James G. Anderson, is giving each graduate student a three-member advising committee. Anderson also is providing programs aimed at improving their social lives, an off-campus psychiatrist for students to contact confidentially, and meetings with alumni to discuss job possibilities.

Ms. Gill said the graduate school was working on some changes before Altom killed himself. Six years ago, the graduate school created a social center that sponsors dinners, drama performances and other events for graduate students.

``I think what the loss of this student has caused us to do is ask the question, ‘Is there more we can do to ease some of the stress?’,″ Ms. Gill said.

``The answer obviously is ‘Yes,’ ... and we’re moving quickly and aggressively to do so,″ she said.

Update hourly