I n late March, the Huffington Post charged that students and faculty felt the University was not supportive and transparent to them and the general public about first year Social Policy & Practice student Alice Wiley’s death, keeping it “Under Wraps For Weeks.”
However, emails supplied by Dean of SP2 Richard Gelles and interviews with students and faculty at the school tell a somewhat different story.
First year SP2 student Alice Wiley died in her home state of Georgia on Dec. 27. According to emails sent from SP2 administrators to faculty, her death was a suicide.
The University informed students of Wiley’s death on Jan. 15, the first in a chain of events which made first year SP2 student Thomas Bick feel “like it was very hush hush,” he told The Daily Pennsylvanian. “It felt like no action.” He also wrote a March 28 opinion piece entitled “Left Unsupported in Our Grief” for the Huffington Post.
“Less emails, more contact”
S tudents and administrators countered that the school was just respecting the family’s wishes and let students know soon after learning of Wiley’s death. SP2 was not notified of Wiley’s death until Jan. 13, by her mother. They notified SP2 administrators, faculty and students two days later via email, Gelles said.
“Everyone that I spoke with [at the University] was kind and gracious and extremely considerate and so sad,” Wiley’s mother, Susan, said. “They were just so sad.”
The Jan. 15 email did not include Wiley’s manner of death, a decision Bick criticized in the Huffington Post. The family requested it be told to the community at a memorial service. A letter from Wiley’s mother that included her suspected cause of death was read at a Jan. 29 memorial service. A Feb. 19 email to faculty informed them that Wiley committed suicide and advised them to check in with their students.
One of Wiley’s friends, a first year SP2 student who wished to remain anonymous, said, “I think there has been a bit of delay in how the University helped the cohort cope but they’re doing the best they could under the circumstances... We can’t bash the administration for trying to follow the family’s wishes.”
Gelles also had concerns about telling students about a colleagues suicide via email. “I truly do not believe in hitting people cold with an email over an event like that,” he said. “There just isn’t a gentle way of sending that.”
Many students were informed of Wiley’s suicide via social media platforms like Facebook. Bick said some students sought information regarding her death from one of her sisters on the site.
A part-time SP2 student who recently issued a survey to SP2 students to assess their knowledge of mental health resources on campus also lamented the use of email to communicate Wiley’s death. “That’s the only area I feel not as happy with [how the school handled],” the student said. “I feel like it deserved more than an email, but I don’t know how you reach out to 300 students at once... I feel like we get a lot of emails and we need to get less emails and more contact.”
The March 27 article in the Huffington Post also reported SP2 Professor Allan Irving saying he learned about Wiley’s suicide for the first time from a student. The article also said that multiple faculty sources had confirmed that the February email was the first time that faculty was informed of the suicide.
“Unsupported” in their grief?
A f ter the deaths of Elvis Hatcher and Madison Holleran , Counseling and Psychological Services , Student Intervention Services and the office of the Vice Provost of Undergraduate Life led the response. Although CAPS was notified of Wiley’s death through the Vice Provost of University Life shortly after SP2 was informed, Bill Alexander, director of CAPS said that the school told him they were handling it internally.
Bick charged in his writings and an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian that SP2 did not provide adequate support in the wake of the tragedy. He wrote that students told him CAPS did not appear to have been notified of Wiley’s death, which is incorrect.
Alexander credited the small number of students who chose to visit CAPS regarding Wiley’s death to the school’s tactful handling of the situation. “After all, they are social workers,” he said.
Some faculty and students in SP2 have criticized that SP2 professors are not included on the Task Force on Students’s Psychological Health and Welfare. Gelles was told SP2 would have representation on one of the Task Forces’s working groups.
One of Wiley’s friends, a first year SP2 student who wished to remain anonymous, visited CAPS for an already scheduled regular appointment with a therapist . The student said that as a whole, the school and mental health resources on campus did the best they could.
The part-time SP2 student who recently issued the survey to SP2 students assessing their knowledge of mental health resources on campus is not entirely convinced that these resources are visible to graduate students.
“As a grad student, you’re not as plugged in,” the part-time student said. “Libraries are visible, classrooms are visible... But CAPS is not.”
“I had no idea CAPS existed,” the student added, acknowledging they are only on campus a few times per week.
The student, who wished to remain anonymous so that the survey is not compromised, noted the survey is not complete
Bick also wrote that he would have liked to see more public gatherings like “school meetings or assemblies.” “The lack of open communication about her suicide has left students feeling confused and angry,” he wrote in the Huffington Post article.
The school hosted the memorial for Wiley, which was postponed because of a snowstorm, and also offered meditation sessions and “a conversation about stress, distress and suicide in the context of social work ” on Feb. 26, according to an email sent to SP2 students, as well as a follow-up session on April 2.
But to Bick, this should have been done earlier, as well as an earlier discussion in class. He said that the first time one of his professors brought up the subject in class was on Feb. 19, after the professor received an email from the administration encouraging them to check in with students. He said these conversations provide students with closure, something he says his textbooks recommend when someone leaves a group. In this case, he told The DP, “You have someone who’s not coming back ever and just nothing?”
Wiley’s friend believes it is everyone’s job to look out for each other . “That mentality of being in an Ivy League institution that you should be able to deal with being here needs to go. That mentality is toxic,” Wiley’s friend said.
Her friend referenced a blog post on Pennsive, a Tumblr created by the mental health awareness group Penn Active Minds and the CAPS student advisory board. In the post, a student dealing with mental health issues wrote that she had asked her friends to go for a walk with her and they all claimed to be too busy, leading her to the brink of suicide.
The friend also recalled Wiley’s genuine care for others, remembering a time when a friend of theirs was criticizing their own body, and “without skipping a beat, [Wiley] said ‘All bodies are beautiful.’”
“You are so much more than just Penn. You are an individual,” Wiley’s friend added.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said the Huffington Post reported SP2 first emailed faculty about Wiley's death in February. The Huffington Post reported that SP2 emailed faculty to tell them her death was a suicide in February.