Cogwell, a mental health group on campus, is training students with the necessary tools to reach out to friends and peers who are struggling.
The student-run group was born out of a collaboration between Counseling and Psychological Services and the Vice Provost in 2006, and it currently has about 10 to 15 active members.
“Our goal is to create a network in which Penn students can come together and be able to freely talk about what’s going on in their lives or in a friends life,” program director Lucy Goodman said. “And so students are able to effectively communicate with their peers, especially with regards to mental health.”
The group focuses on four main components: active listening with a social worker, Barbara Berley-Mellits, logo therapy with Perelman School of Medicine professor Henry Bleier, coping mechanisms and direct interaction with CAPS professionals to practice constructive communication. The group has also focused on mental wellness recently.
“The training session we put on bi-annually is really the crux of Cogwell,” Goodman said.
According to Ephraim Levin, assistant chaplain of Penn and advisor to the group, Cogwell not only encourages students to learn valuable communication skills, but also aims to create a tight-knit network of students who can support each other.
“When a person learns these things, they can apply it to themselves or to their families in a leadership situation because they are very valuable things that people can take with them for a lifetime,” Levin said. “Our focus is on being positive by creating a larger net of students who are in touch with each other and their friends — hopefully that will catch more people.”
The group not only works in conjunction the Vice Provost and CAPS, but has also received support from foundations such as Minding Your Mind. Last semester, the group brought actress Brittany Snow to campus for their Love is Louder campaign to talk about her experiences with bullying and an eating disorder.
Levin further emphasized that Cogwell seeks to properly equip students to handle difficult situations while also knowing when to ask professionals for help.
“We’re creating another channel to CAPS and I think it’s important to have alternate routes to CAPS,” Levin said. “The main emphasis here is that it’s friend-to-friend dialogue.”
Goodman explained that during training, students learn how to listen and understand what they’re hearing, how to communicate back to their peers, the difference between healthy and unhealthy coping, how to differentiate between normal stress and excessive anxiety and how to tell when a friend or roommate is in serious trouble.
“We aren’t encouraging students to become someone’s counselor or psychiatrist but want to help them make the right decisions if they have to seek some other form of help,” Cogwell Chair and College junior Joanna Heinz said.
Goodman added that the handling of mental health issues is a national, not just local, issue.
“Mental health is something that is swept under the rug by U.S. culture in general, it’s not just at Penn,” she said. “More mental health resources need to be more present on campus — you don’t necessarily need to be diagnosed to see someone at CAPS or come to our training event.”
The group aims to both de-stigmatize mental health on campus and approach the issue from a positive angle.
“At Penn there is a sort of focus on the individual and individual success and reaching out is frowned upon because there is a notion that you’ll deal with it yourself,” Heinz said. “We want a dialogue to be created where people can come and talk to each other openly.”