Q&A with Rita Sahu, Acting Program Director for the Mental Wellness Initiative

MITili Staff

Rita Sahu is the Acting Program Director for the Mental Wellness Initiative (an Initiative within MITili). The Initiative’s goal is to collaborate across research projects that impact or are impacted by learning. Rita was motivated to pitch this project due to two primary factors - her proximity to an academic environment as an alum and staffer, and her observations of mental health impacts (resulting from loneliness) as the founder of a startup. The consequences of failing to accurately diagnose children and adolescents with mental illness can result in years of untreated symptoms, prolonged distress, dysfunction in school, a disruption of the typical developmental trajectory, and an increased risk of completed suicide.

Her work with MITili centers on making education more effective for all learners, and especially those students struggling with mental wellness.

When did you first become interested in mindfulness and mental well-being?

I have increasingly become aware of the prevalence and effects of mental illness on learning over the last seven years. I am also convinced that this requires the attention of all stakeholders, given the magnitude and intensity of what is fast becoming a crisis if not already.

Tell us a bit about the Mental Wellness Initiative and your role at MIT?

The Mental Wellness Initiative is an initiative within MITili, which is a part of MIT Open Learning. The initiative was formally launched via a public discussion during January, 2021 and supports the mission of MIT Open Learning which is “to transform teaching and learning at MIT and around the globe through the innovative use of digital technologies”. Since mental wellness provides a solid foundation and is at the core of a learner’s ability to learn, the initiative is an important step in the right direction.

My role is to shape and grow the initiative by applying PI led MIT-style science and engineering to synergistically help diverse populations through targeted interventions, via a “research to practice” model.

What are some tools students might use to help with mindfulness in the classroom?

The “research to practice” model is a way to learn and intervene appropriately. It should incorporate environmental constructs that promote wellness, along with ways to incorporate those into a curriculum structure. While a general model should serve as a guideline, dynamic sub-models with on-going analysis will help impact a larger cross-section of learners.

Are there any signs teachers should look for in students to know that they might be struggling?

Teachers should not just be looking at grades as a gauge of a student’s well-being, but should also be listening, understanding, and mentoring students to cope with non-academic challenges. Students oftentimes struggle to stay motivated and hopeful during college years and for what is to come – teachers can play an important role in bridging that gap between a lack of motivation and finding a purpose.

What is your favorite thing about studying and working at MIT?

I think of MIT as my second home, a home away from home – it has provided opportunities to interact with a wonderful group of individuals, and have enriching experiences. I also consider MIT to be a place where anything is possible and often think “If not here, then where else?”. I firmly believe and know that MIT has the unique ability to make those far reaching and aspirational changes that will help local, national, and global communities thrive in consistently meaningful ways.