Students left off mental health task force

Administrators say task force will solicit student input throughout process

· February 19, 2014, 11:56 pm   ·  Updated March 16, 2014, 4:02 pm

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The lack of student representation on the University’s newly created mental health task force drew sharp reactions from faculty and students alike after its announcement Wednesday afternoon.

“We seem to be starting off on the wrong foot,” School of Social Policy & Practice professor Toorjo Ghose said at Wednesday’s University Council meeting in Houston Hall’s Bodek Lounge. “I really would encourage you to have students, especially students who have been taking this flag and marching with it for the last few months, on that task force.”

He finished speaking to snaps from around the room.

Penn President Amy Gutmann and Provost Vincent Price announced the Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare on Wednesday in response to student suicides and a campus movement to address mental health. Co-chaired by former Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Rebecca Bushnell and Director of Education for the Department of Psychiatry Anthony Rostain, the task force has no student representatives. It expects to conclude its research at the end of 2014 and release a report in early 2015.

Penn Undergraduate Health Coalition chair and College sophomore Julie Bittar is one of several students who has already started to work on improving mental health on campus.

“It completely defeats the purpose of connecting with your students,” Bittar, also an Undergraduate Assembly member, said. “We need students involved.”

A Jan. 26 UA email told undergraduates to reach out to Bittar and College junior and PUHC member Elana Stern with thoughts about the state of mental health at Penn. Within 24 hours, Bittar said, she and Stern were poring over about 300 emails from students. They used the emails, which detailed personal stories about mental health at Penn and recommendations, to guide their initiatives.

“They’ll get the same stuff back if they talk to students,” Bittar said. “It makes everything we worked for useless.”

UMOJA political chair and Wharton junior Nikki Hardison worried that the reality of student life and campus culture would get lost in the task force without any student representation. The 5B, Penn’s five main cultural coalitions, had a meeting Wednesday night with Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum, Hardison said, and brought up the issue.

“It was a great conversation,” Hardison said. “She said it was something she’d bring to Gutmann and her staff. We’ll see where it goes.”

Swain-Cade McCoullum declined to comment for this article, as the task force has not yet met.

Bittar, for her part, promised to lobby administrators to get a student presence on the task force.

Administrators said the task force would solicit student input throughout its research.

“I have every confidence that students will be engaged by task force members, who bring specific expertise and have oversight in this area, and that students will have numerous opportunities to provide their insights and ideas,” Price said in an emailed statement.

“Rather than funnel through a single student voice - a tremendous responsibility - I’m assuming the task force will want to hear from a variety of student voices,” Vice President for Institutional Affairs Joann Mitchell, the task force vice chair, said.

The task force will lay everything, including possibly increasing resources, on the table, Mitchell added. It will likely examine resources including Counseling and Psychological Services, Student Health Service and the Chaplain’s Office. As the task force hasn’t yet met, it has not set a timeline for its next steps.

Ghose, the SP2 professor, also critiqued the task force being too bureaucratic and for excluding social workers and SP2 professors who have dedicated their careers to researching issues of mental health.

“It makes me question what this task force is supposed to be doing,” he said in an interview Wednesday night. “We have some great experts, which is wonderful, but we’re not covering all the resources we have at Penn, which means we’re shortchanging the issue.”

Despite the criticism, many agree that the formation of the task force is a positive step by the administration.

“I think it’s definitely something that we as student leaders and as the student body have been looking for in terms of seeing how the administration was going to respond,” Hardison said.

Students also hoped to see tangible changes before the expected report release in 2015.

“In terms of things like structure and function, in terms of resource allocated to CAPS, things have to change before this task force,” Stern said.

CAPS took a step toward those changes on Jan. 28, when it announced that it would expand hours and hire three additional staff members, a move many considered a step in the right direction to address complaints of inaccessibility and long wait times.

Staff writer Fola Onifade contributed reporting.

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