Twelve years before Penn President Amy Gutmann and Provost Vincent Price announced the creation of a task force to study mental health on campus, a similar committee presented its findings to the University’s provost in June 2002.
Last week, the administration commissioned a task force to comprehensively evaluate the policies and procedures that address mental health at Penn, a task last done in 2002.
The 2002 Mental Health Outreach Task Force, made up of students, administrators and staff, presented six key recommendations. The University implemented four of the six, said Director of Education for the Department of Psychiatry Anthony Rostain, who chaired the 2002 task force.
The recommendations to create a mental health outreach coordinating council and to clearly identify mental health outreach goals for the community got lost in the shuffle.
“I thought mental wellness and mental health of the staff and faculty and students ought to be something that every year people systematically look at,” Rostain, who will also co-chair this year’s task force, said of the outreach coordinating council. “Part of what I’m going to do now when I’m charged is try to figure out whether there needs to be something like that.”
Another suggestion that fell through was to create “health graduate assistants” for the college houses. These graduate students would have been a health resource and would have coordinated awareness initiatives and been a referral source to University resources.
“I think that was a good idea - and still is a good idea,” Rostain said.
The actual implementation of the recommendations didn’t fall to the task force. They handed it to then-Provost Robert Barchi, who is now president of Rutgers University. Barchi was unable to speak for this article. Associate Vice Provost for Health and Academic Services Max King, who was not on the 2002 task force but has been at the University since 1996, said the University divisions addressed in the report mostly implemented the suggestions on their own.
The four successful recommendations were guidelines for mandatory medical leave of absence for students with mental health problems, expanding mental health liaisons, supporting and expanding mental health outreach activities and creating a mental health crisis team to coordinate responses.
In sharp contrast to the recently announced task force, the 2002 task force included three students - two undergraduates and one graduate student. Rostain is the only person to serve on both.
Alison Malmon, founder of mental health awareness group Active Minds and a 2003 College graduate, was one of the undergraduate students on the 2002 task force. Malmon started the forerunner of Active Minds at Penn in response to her older brother’s suicide. Originally, the task force, which then had just two student representatives, asked her to share her experiences.
“I approached Tony Rostain and the others and asked if I could come back,” she said. She was invited to become a permanent member.
“It has to come from students, to students to be relevant,” Malmon said, also calling the absence of students on this year’s task force “disappointing.”
The lack of students on the current task force has drawn ire not only from students, but from faculty, who claim the task force is too bureaucratic and not engaged enough with the population it hopes to help. In response to the criticism, Gutmann and Price published a letter in The Daily Pennsylvanian on Monday explaining that the task force will consult with two working groups, which will include students. Because the task force will not meet until next month, there are no details as to how students will be chosen for the working groups.
University officials say a task force made up of administrators and faculty will be more effective in assessing student need.
“The University has found that a task force of experts and senior administrators that reaches out across campus and beyond can be the most effective way to engage the widest and most diverse possible range of students, faculty and others,” Price said in an emailed statement.
King, the associate vice provost, said there will be a similar level of input as in 2002.
“Many of the people or the areas that you saw represented specifically on the 2002 task force will be involved in this process, just this current task force is one put together at a higher level,” he said. “Actually, that’s a good thing, because when those sorts of folks are put onto a task force, it adds strength to the importance of the work that’s being done.”
This year’s task force has a clear impetus: the spate of suicides that left campus reeling and an ongoing discussion about mental health. In 2002, both internal feeling and national trends pushed the University to convene the task force.
Data released in the task force’s report show that scheduled first-time appointments at CAPS rose from 1,307 in 1997-98 to 2,003 in 2000-01.
“9/11 really got everybody,” Rostain said. “It was a rise in the number of students who reported they were depressed and showing up to CAPS, so the provost just felt like it was time to look and see what was going on.”
A case in Massachusetts grabbed the attention of universities nationwide. The parents of 19-year-old Massachusetts Institute of Technology student Elizabeth Shin sued MIT in 2002 after their daughter burned to death in her dorm room in April 2000. Her death was ruled a suicide by a medical examiner. The case opened the question of what responsibilities schools bear in providing mental health care to students and in notifying parents when students were perceived to be deteriorating.
“‘I think I’d rather err on the side of overextending to someone who isn’t in trouble than missing those who are,” Judith Rodin, Penn’s president at the time, told The New York Times for a lengthy piece on Shin in 2002. “We are a community, and we need to be responsible for each other. You can’t guarantee these things don’t happen, even if you create that ethos. We had two suicides this year after 10 years with none. But you can provide the social and psychological support.”
Shin’s family settled with MIT in 2006 for an undisclosed sum, agreeing with the school in the settlement that Shin’s death was likely an accident.
“The issues are still present. There are still the same pressures, the same risks, but I think there have been a lot of improvements in the way CAPS works and the way there’s outreach,” Rostain said. “On the other hand, there’s still a barrier and a stigma that doesn’t go away.”
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