O n Feb. 7 , sophomore Eve Bowers started a flash Facebook campaign: post an unflattering profile picture and admit to having bad days. The backlash was immediate and extensive: Is this just repackaged narcissism? Will participating boost social relevance? Does advertising ourselves really help those in need of acceptance?
The politics of profile pictures are complicated. The internet is the new public eye and our online selves are constantly being scrutinized. There’s no reliable way to detect authenticity from PR — it’s a spectrum, clearly, not a binary — although I believe that Eve Bowers acted selflessly when she deleted all of her profile pictures and uploaded one “ridiculous” one. The shortcomings of her movement have nothing to do with her intentions but everything to do with our self-absorbed, hyperreactive culture.
But the back-and-forth debate hides a larger issue: The administration has not done enough to help students organize and mourn together. We seem to want a culture of “coming out” as sad or anxious or depressed — but so far, the best we can do is bare it all online.
Where is the candlelight vigil outside College Hall for Madison, Elvis, Kevin and Josh? Where is the school reserving space and time for students to ask questions and hold each other and share our fears? We are so lacking in a public space to come together that two weekends ago, a group of students started spontaneously hugging people on Locust Walk. There wasn’t an email sent to ALL-UNDERGRADS-EMAIL@lists.upenn.edu about that. But if you walked past the LOVE statue at the right time on that Saturday afternoon, there was another student with their arms outstretched ready to physically hold you.
We should be together in person because those connections create a support network that lasts longer than an a status update. Yes, I agree that the recent addition of three full-time and three temporary clinical staff members at CAPS is a step forward, and it will allow for more students to seek help during this time of need. But as a student body, our needs go beyond the individual. Talking to someone inside four walls for an hour once a week should not be our only option. What we need right now is space to be together. And if we can’t do that outside College Hall, we will take to the internet — as we have been doing.
Eve Bowers’ call to action may signal change to some and social currency to others, but it was the best she thought she could do at the time. She’s not alone; this semester, many of my friends have written long-form , thoughtful status updates about their own experiences with mental health and depression.
Some students created a Tumblr blog called “Pennsive,” where anyone can share his or her own battles with mental health and this unfortunate campus culture of silence. One student submitted an essay titled “Why I Tried To Kill Myself At Penn.” The author writes: “After suicides, everyone laments, ‘Why didn’t they talk?’ Often, we did.”
I’m not saying that sharing on the internet is better or worse than sharing in person. I’m saying it’s the best that we’ve come up with, considering what we have. I still believe in the value of shared human experience, and I think the University should be doing more to create those moments of togetherness and strength on campus.
If this campus is serious about championing mental health, then we need to start by listening when somebody says there is a problem. To Amy Gutmann and the University administration: That means you too. To students: Continue to be critical. Not just of your peers — who may not think twice (or may think entirely too much) about what we say online — but also of the University. There needs to be more ongoing dialogue on this campus about mental health and about what we can do to move forward together.
Frida Garza is a College senior from El Paso, Texas, studying English. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her @fffffrida.
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