In recent weeks, Penn has engaged in an active discussion about addressing mental health concerns on campus. College Houses are taking their own steps to make sure that residents feel supported at home.
“We devote significant time in our weekly meetings to discussing not only how the residents in each House — including the RA and GA staffs — are coping with the recent tragedies but also how we as a department might contribute to the campus dialogue and any ideas to improve services and communications,” Associate Director of Communications for the College Houses Sue Smith said in an email.
College houses have adopted a number of strategies, some independent and some collective, to make sure their students feel comfortable coming to house staff with concerns about themselves or friends.
To engage students with RAs and GAs, senior house staff and other residents, Ware, Riepe and several other houses have encouraged staff to keep their doors open so residents can feel free to reach out.
Riepe College House Dean Marilynne Diggs-Thompson said that she has been spending more time in her office with the door open for the past two weekends. “This gives me the opportunity to provide them with the list of resources offered on campus, or, to actually walk them over to CAPS if necessary,” she said. RAs and GAs have been doing the same.
Like in Riepe, one of the main initiatives in Ware recently has been to make sure that RAs and GAs are available to students, leaving their doors open and encouraging students to spend time in communal areas like floor lounges.
College freshman and Ware resident Olivia Graham said her GA has approached her personally to encourage her to refer any friends who might be struggling with mental health.
On the western side of campus, open doors seem to be less common. Harrison College House Dean Frank Pellicone said that unlike the Quad, his residents are not allowed to keep their doors open for fire safety issues, but he would be happy for that to occur if it were possible.
College sophomore and Du Bois resident Brianna Sainte said her RA has not reached out to her. She suggested that if RAs or other staff reached out to residents about mental wellness on a personal level, that might be “a little bit more helpful.”
All college houses also have a CAPS liaison, Smith said. Some college houses use these liaisons as advisors or to bring mental health professionals directly to residents.
Pellicone said that Harrison has a number of upcoming events focused on mental wellness, including a dinner with CAPS in the coming weeks. Other events include a workshop led by a resident who is a member of Active Minds and time management workshops led by the Weingarten Learning Resources Center.
Diggs-Thompson said that in her experience, CAPS events “are not very well attended as students seem to prefer quite often to connect and to comfort each other.” She is still interested in scheduling an event with CAPS either within Riepe or collectively with the other Quad houses.
Gregrory College House has hosted office hours with CAPS and has been distributing information about other resources available on campus, but House Dean Christopher Donovan said, “beyond that, we haven’t really done anything specific.”
Du Bois House Dean Trish Williams said in an email that her house’s CAPS liaison advises and supports house staff.
“Out of concern for staff who themselves may be feeling overwhelmed during these challenging times, our CAPS liaison has been invited to a staff meeting to talk to staff, not only about their assisting our undergraduate residents, but on how to take care of themselves, as well,” she said.
Ware, Dubois, Harrison, Gregory have also disseminated information about mental health resources on campus. They send out emails to residents, post information in public hall bathrooms or make CAPS pamphlets available.
Riepe and several other college houses have planned events aimed at stress reduction.
Riepe is known for its comfort food events and has been placing more emphasis on those events recently. “In my opinion, in addition to offering official CAPS and campus resources, it is important that our residents come together for various events to connect, chat, commiserate and to socialize with each other,” Diggs-Thompson said. “So even though coming together over comfort food events may sound trivial, I feel that these events can be important.”
Riepe RA and Wharton junior James Fangmeyer is also setting up a meditation corner.
Pellicone worried that adding additional house events, beyond those focusing on mental health, would place additional stress on the house staff. “We’ve emphasized more that these events are great stress reducers,” he said. He added the house has anticipated higher attendance at recent events, so they’ve made sure they have more food.
Donovan said that Gregory’s RAs and GAs have been working to make sure that residents know about initiatives elsewhere on campus, but they’re mainly focusing on “doing small, intimate, low-key events over the past few weeks.”
“What’s clear is we need to make sure that people feel comfortable coming to the staff members if they have issues or know people who do,” Pellicone said, and he has definitely noticed such an increase.
College junior and Ware Senior House Manager Marc-Anthony Serrano said that students have been reacting positively to the increased awareness of mental health support within the house, and he has noticed that students have been coming to talk to him or reaching out over Facebook much more frequently.
While Serrano definitely supports all the steps that Ware has been taking recently, “I don’t know that it is enough,” he said. “It’s kind of sad that it’s taken this tragedy to spur this increase.”
Donovan has not seen such an increase in Gregory. “Obviously there are some students who are either feeling stressed or are responding to recent events on campus, but we haven’t seen a large number of students talk to us yet,” he said.
“We’re keeping our eyes open and responding to what the students tell us,” he added.
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