Your view of the Elizabeth Shin tragedy and her parents' lawsuit?

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Today's (Sunday, April 28, 2002) New York Times Magazine ran a long article about Elizabeth Shin's tragic suicide, and the subsequent lawsuit her parents filed against MIT. Here's an excerpt from the article:

Two years after Elizabeth's death on April 14, 2000, the Shins have filed a $27 million wrongful death suit against M.I.T. in a Massachusetts superior court.  The Shins claim that M.I.T., overly concerned with protecting Elizabeth's confidentiality, failed to inform them of their daughter's precipitous deterioration in the month before her death.  This, they say, robbed them of a chance to oversee her care or perhaps even to save her life.  M.I.T., the Shins claim, made matters worse by failing to act in their place, "in loco parentis to the deceased".  The school did not provide adequate, coordinated mental health care for their daughter, they claim, nor a proper emergency response to the fire.

The Shins do not blame the intense character of M.I.T. per se;  they do not claim that M.I.T. drove Elizabeth to the brink and over it.  But, with 12 suicides since 1990, M.I.T. is battling a reputation as a pressure cooker, and it is against this backdrop that the university is vigorously defending itself.  M.I.T. denies any responsibility for what it described in a statement as a "tragedy".  More broadly, M.I.T. sees this as a high- stakes case that touches on timely, knotty issues affecting all institutions of higher education.  "We have to win", an M.I.T. official told me several times.  "If we don't, it has implications for every university in this country."

Source: Who Was Responsible for Elizabeth Shin?

Since you've been associated with MIT for quite a while, and since you've done research on suicides at MIT, I was curious about your reaction to this tragic story and the lawsuit that followed.


-- Alex Chernavsky, April 28, 2002


I like to blame high tuition for everything and this is no exception. When you charge parents $160,000 to educate their child there is a tendency to promise a lot. Universities don't want to put disclaimers on their brochures saying "We will take your life savings but, by the way, we're not going to be responsible for Little Johnny's safety or health." So the university has a medical department. And if the faculty doesn't care about student drinking or student sexual relations, the university will hire some deans who will pretend to care (though of course they will do 99.99% of their caring from an Aeron chair in the administration building rather than out in the smelly dorms). If you read you'll find that "Dr. Daniel A. Trujillo, former coordinator of alcohol and substance abuse prevention at the State University of New York at Albany, has been named associate dean for alcohol education and community development."

MIT poked its nose into every aspect of Elizabeth Shin's parents' lives before she showed up on campus. MIT wanted their tax returns, bank statements, and property appraisals. All of this intimate information for the purpose of figuring out how much money could be extracted from the Shins. Then when their daughter is dead MIT will say "We have an arm's length relationship with this family and we never deal with the parents at all. The student is an adult."

It would seem inconsistent to say that

(1) a student, even a 21-year-old senior, is considered attached umbilically to the parents for the purposes of determining how much the kid will have to pay. If the student says "But my parents hate me and would rather have a Mercedes than pay another $40,000 for this year at MIT", MIT says "You may look like an adult to the rest of the world but to us you're still mommy's little baby."

(2) a student, even a 17-year-old freshman, is considered detached from the parents in every other respect

If I were running a university (which is rather like saying "if the sun were to fall out of the sky tomorrow"), I would try to cut tuition to some level that almost any young person could afford and at the same time take a strong "You're responsible for yourself" line (i.e., we do academic education, not alcohol or sex education). If, however, it turned out that I were forced to get so intimate with every student's family that I knew more about their finances than the IRS (and was taking more money out of them every year than the IRS), I guess I would try to care for the whole student. Rather than hiring deans to pretend to care intensely I would try to distribute the caring among the core personnel (faculty and students) and involve parents in a structured manner (who better to nag a sophomore into doing his problem sets than the people who nagged him into cleaning up his room?).

Anyway, the situation is sad. And what I fear will make it a touch sadder is that instead of sucking it up and taking responsibility now and apologizing, MIT will probably do what we did in the Scott Krueger case. We'll hide behind lawyers for a few years and then settle for big bucks after the press has lost interest in the case.

-- Philip Greenspun, April 29, 2002

I've always found it interesting that it would be illegal for a company to say, "the price of our product is X, but if you can pay more, we will increase as high as we feel you can afford to pay", but it is OK to for them to say, "the price is 10X, but if you can't afford that, we'll give you aid".

I'm also curious if students' medical information has always been private (i.e. kept away from parents) or if this is a recent trend that began in say, 1973. I'm pro-choice, but I still think it's weird that some people are so vehement about parent's being kept out of their kids lives when it comes to that subject.

-- Ben Ballard, April 29, 2002

I have to disagree. I think that the issue of freedom is critical and deserves the utmost protection, however, when a counselor is made aware that a student is suicidal, even slightly, the parents should be notified. Who knows what they might have done in this particular situation, and furthermore the therapist is required to tell them, by statute in many states and by professional guidelines in any event.

While 18 may be considered adult in the eyes of the law, I am 35 and I would argue that my family, or primary contact, should be notified should my health be endangered in any way, if I am clearly not acting in my best interest. Congress would not necessarily have to change the law, the common law on torts says that if someone is an imminent danger to themselves or another, named, person, the therapist has a duty to report. Obviously, there is a great deal of discretion involved on the part of the therapist, but that is part of their job.

This duty is not a general one to "parent" all students. But, once the school is aware of a serious situation, as they were here, action should be taken. I am not necessarily advocating the lawsuit, which won't rectify the situation. However, if it results in schools taking greater care in such situations I am all for it.

I don't believe that this will lead to counseling services shutting down across the land. This type of argument, known as the parade of horribles, does not really take into account the individuals who would be affected by therapists taking on a minimal duty to inform in extreme circumstances. I am speaking here from personal knowledge with very functional mentally ill people who needed all the help they could get.

Feel free to respond to my arguments.

-- Ledra Horowitz, April 30, 2002

College and independence

I'm a student at a somewhat less prestigious university than MIT (and frankly, a good deal less expensive). But anyway, if the girl was over 18, MIT really had no responsibility to the Shins. The university really has no responsibility even to the girl. The privacy of students is a real issue of concern. In most cases, (at least in mine), my parents pay the bills. But it is my life. They certainly don't need to be contacted everytime I go to a party-- this isn't grade school any more. I think MIT was in the right protecting the privacy of a student.

-- Ian MacAllen, May 1, 2002

Ledra - I can think of many situations a counsellor would find that informing the parents would make things worse, not better. A suicidally depressed student who is suicidally depressed because they're terrified about their familys' reaction to discovering their son is gay, for example, is unlikely to thank a counsellor for blabbing to mum and dad.

Likewise, an article popped up in a local newspaper mentioning that school counsellors are often told of teen pregnancies beore parents because the teenager is too terrified of the parents' reaction (especially in religious, conservative families) to tell them; again, a bigmouthed counsellor is unlikely to improve matters.

-- Rodger Donaldson, May 6, 2002

In response to this:


"A suicidally depressed student who is suicidally depressed because they're terrified about their familys' reaction to discovering their son is gay, for example, is unlikely to thank a counsellor for blabbing to mum and dad."

"again, a bigmouthed counsellor is unlikely to improve matters."

Although I do agree with you that issues concerning matters of homosexuality, as well as other matters of this degree, be kept in the strictest of confidence, you cannot deny that coming out of the closet is rather insignificant compared to something like suicide.

I'm sure you wouldn't be the first person willing to organize a rally to promote student privacy, but in matters regarding SERIOUS consequences, such as killing yourself maybe?, the school, as well as any person or institution, should be responsible for notifying some sort of authority.

And if I were mentally unstable for whatever reason and sought help from a PROFESSIONAL, I would hope that they would inform someone who was in a better state of mind than me, so that something like this could be prevented.

-- Matthew C, March 4, 2004

As candidate for my PhD in clinical/health psychology I would like to respond to this question from a clinical and ethical perspective. If in fact, Elizabeth Shin reported suicide ideations then her therapist(s)were in fact supposed to break confidentiality and notify her parents. Why? Because she is of harm to herself and possibly others. As a therapist, the duty is to protect and always keep the patients best interest at heart. This tragedy is one that speaks volumes to the mental health issues that are increasing on college campuses.


-- C. Ellen Washington, August 3, 2004

What a travesty! As a parent of a freshman in college, I was appalled at the negligence of MIT professionals in acknowledging and treating Elizabeth Shin's deteriorating condition. The previous poster was correct in stating that she was becoming a danger not only to herself...but others around her. I find it difficult to understand why doctors kept "dismissing" Elizabeth's cries for help...and not informing her family of the situation.

-- Edna Joe, October 26, 2004

I find it interesting that everyone keeps debating whether or not MIT should have informed the parents about her suicidal tendencies. I have a few comments about this issue. First off by law MIT counselors are not permitted to notify her parents without her written consent. When her well-being is at stake they have to notify authorities which when they hospitalized her they did. Second of all her parents were well aware of her suicidal tendencies and depression, they just refused to accept it. I mean this girl had a history all her life of depression and suicidal tendencies before she came to MIT. Her RA even called her parents and told them she had tried to commit suicide. Her parents are the ones that opted to withdraw her from Mclains hospital (one of the best psychiatric hospitals in the world). Her parents refused to accept the truth and that is why their daughter died. Because they cared more about her academic performance and upholding the family legacy than her mental health. She also told her friends that she didn't want her parents to know because they just add to the problem and won't do anything about it. Talk to her friends who really know her before you go buying into the family's public relations (they hired a PR firm) propaganda in the media.

-- Alexander Ryan, October 31, 2004

The Institute treated her like an adult she was. As to her parents, it's impossible that they didn't know about her situation. Sounds like another case of inadequate parenting and now they want to blame someone else.

I am not surprised by the 12 suicides since 1990 figure, my impression always was that about one student a year committed suicide there. There's probably some genetic link between high intelligence and suicidal tendencies.

-- trudy h, December 3, 2004

This has become fresh news again at MIT due to the settlement of another suicide that happened about the same time.

The real sham here is that MIT gets blamed for poor parenting. Is it possible that the parents missed this? Only if they were negligent. So they pack off an intelligent but unstable daughter to MIT, who then commits suicide. And the result is not that these parents go to jail, but that MIT has to pay these negligent parents. Where is the justice?

Q: Who was responsible for Elizabeth Shin's death? A: Elizabeth Shin and her parents

-- User 8888, September 1, 2006

In my opinion, everyone involved contributed to Elizabeth's demise including Ms. Shin herself. She had these inner demons that were created for whatever reasons, and she fell victim to them. It's a sad shame.

Speaking from my own background, as a first generation Asian American I felt trapped trying to be an overachiever all throughout my school years from kindergarten up to graduating from college. On top of attending college I had to work on almost a full-time basis to try to pay for my schooling. Thank God that I finally woke up and gave up on the idea of being number one in my parents' eyes. I finally accepted that I could not be number one at school while working full time to pay for college. It was impossible to even place myself on the same caliber as my peers. I just accepted the fact that I graduated college, and I slowly accepted the idea that I was not and that I am far from being a genius. I did not attend M.I.T., but I could imagine that most Asian parents would want their daughter or son to go and do well there or at any top 10 school.

So I'm just throwing a wild guess out there. My guess is that the pressure from her parents to excel academically, the competitive nature that exists within M.I.T., and her struggle to come to terms with accepting her intelligence for what it is all contributed to her low visualization of her self worth. By most standards, most people would deem her a genius for even getting accepted to such a prestigious institution.

Yes, M.I.T. should have reported her mental status to her parents. However, even if her parents sought help for Elizabeth, would she not have died in an apparent suicide down the line? We do not know that answer. For the genius of Elizabeth Shin she could not save herself from whatever shortcomings that she, her parents, and/or M.I.T. had created in her mind. That is true sadness, and my prayers for her and everyone who knew and cared about her especially her family.

So is there someone to blame for her death? I don't think anyone could really answer that question. Instead I think that when someone commits suicide we all become victims of that terrible act.

-- Maggie Leung, January 26, 2007

I apologize for updating this old thread topic. I guess I was intrigued to offer my opinion after reading about the "suspected suicide" of Mengyao "May" Zhao, a 23 year old electrical engineering PhD candidate student at Stanford. I know they (the news media) have not reached a final conclusion yet and that the current news is that Ms. Zhao may have committed suicide. There are people who are denying the suicide angle for whatever reasons. However, I just want to say that suicide does not have to be blatantly obvious for such an act to be committed. For example in Ms. Shin's case, a NY Times staff reporter, Deborah Sontag, had commented in her article on "Who Was Responsible For Elizabeth Shin" (April 28, 2002) that "Despite the anxieties roiling Elizabeth, she did not hide in her dorm room and still came across as gregarious."

Whatever the findings that surround Mengyao "May" Zhao's death, my prayers go out to everyone who knew her especially her family.

-- Maggie Leung, January 26, 2007

Has anyone seen the play TAB? It is based on the life of Elizabeth Shin. It is about the Asian American experience and touches on what came before the tragedy. My heart goes out to this young woman and her family. Sincerely

-- Jeanie cole, October 30, 2009

TAB a play in tribute to Elizabeth Shin

Has anyone seen the play TAB? It is based on the life of Elizabeth Shin. It is about the Asian American experience and touches on what came before the tragedy. My heart goes out to this young woman and her family. Sincerely

-- Jeanie cole, October 30, 2009