Haleh Rokni describes her boss as "relentlessly optimistic about people and their potential to live full, successful, and connected lives." Rokni, a staff psychiatrist in MIT Medical's Mental Health and Counseling Service, submitted one of several nominations recommending Mental Health and Counseling Chief Alan Siegel for his 2013 MIT Excellence Award in the category of Bringing out the Best: Everyday Leadership throughout MIT. "When I think of someone who brings out the best," she says, "I immediately think of Alan."
Almost everyone at MIT, including Siegel, agrees that the Mental Health and Counseling Service has undergone significant changes over the course of his 10-year tenure as chief—making great progress in de-stigmatizing mental health care, reaching larger numbers of students, and increasing community outreach. Always humble, Siegel praises his staff for "doing the work, coming up with the ideas, and teaching each other." But Rokni and others give Siegel the credit for creating an environment where change could happen. "He had to project a clear vision and purpose to his colleagues," wrote Associate Medical Director David Diamond, another nominator, remarking on Siegel's ability to "build consensus, marshal resources, and promote new initiatives."
Siegel arrived on campus in the fall of 2002 after more than 20 years at The Cambridge Hospital and the Cambridge Health Alliance, where, he says, "we worked to engage people where they lived and needed to be seen." But at MIT he took the reins of a service that was organized like a standard group practice with each clinician spending most days meeting with a series of his or her own patients. "I wanted to change that to a focus on the whole community, on being where the need is," he says, "not just working one-on-one with patients in the office."
Meeting Siegel's goal of "wider engagement with the community" meant creating and expanding connections between the Service and the rest of the Institute. When it came to students, he began by beefing up the relationships clinicians had with their assigned student residences. Beyond fielding occasional phone calls from residential staff and offering advice on their concerns, clinicians started spending time in the dorms, talking with residents, doing regular presentations, and training staff and students on "how to know when somebody is in distress and what to do about it."
Siegel and his staff also formed a team to respond to campus crises in an empathic but structured way. "In case of tragedy, the Community Crisis Group is ready to go," he says. "We have organized support immediately available to survivors and anyone else who has been affected."
As Siegel and his staff opened more communication channels with departments and individuals around campus, they became better able to respond proactively when concerns were raised. Sometimes this meant developing groups to teach particular skills or to provide support around specific challenges such as food, attention problems, or dealing with the drudgery of completing a dissertation. "At one point, for example," Siegel recounts, "We began hearing concerns from housemasters about students who behaved in ways that were perceived as 'rude' or 'inappropriate,' but who didn't seem to be aware of the impact of their actions on others. In response, two of our clinicians with a particular interest in Asperger syndrome and autism-spectrum disorders developed a very successful group they called the 'social skills laboratory,' where these students could brainstorm ideas, role-play social interactions, and practice conversation skills."
Similarly, Siegel continues, the Service was ready to respond when MIT was faced with significant budget cuts several years ago. In that case, clinicians worked with administrative areas around the Institute on dealing with morale issues, understanding employee concerns, and helping people find ways to support one another.
It's all about looking out for people in a variety of ways, Siegel says, rather than just dealing with individual problems. "Most of it isn't anything fancy," he says, "but it's not what you would see with a single-patient model."
In his 10 years at MIT, Rokni says, Siegel's message to his staff and to the Institute community has been unwavering and succinct: Nobody should worry alone. "He constantly encourages us to look to one another for support and guidance," she says. "He's always available to us. And in the same way, he wants the larger MIT community to know that we're always available to them, and that there is no problem too small to access the Service."