Created in the wake of six student suicides in 15 months, the Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare released its final report on Tuesday.
The eight-page report focuses on “cultural change rather than structural change,” Co-Chair of the task force Anthony Rostain said.
“Destructive perfectionism,” according to Rostain, is one thing the Penn community needs to fight. The report contends “the drive for academic excellence along with the perception that in order to be successful one needs to hold leadership roles in multiple realms contributes to the amount of stress and distress experienced by Penn students.”
Specific recommendations include completing a website that centralizes the University’s health resources by the fall of 2015 and clarifying leave of absence policies to students.
The report emphasizes four key recommendations: increasing communication about mental health resources, making information about resources more accessible, educating and training the Penn community on mental health and optimizing the resources devoted to Counseling and Psychological Services.
The task force was announced last February by President Amy Gutmann and Provost Vincent Price to research mental well-being and make recommendations to improve the quality of student life.
The current task force follows the 2002 Mental Health Outreach Task Force, which was commissioned by then-Provost Robert Barchi in response to increased concern for mental health after the 9/11 attacks. The University implemented only four of that task force’s six recommendations. It did not implement a recommendation to create an outreach council to plan and implement the 2002 report’s suggestions.
This time, an oversight team will be established to “help Penn align its efforts ... with national standards,” in accordance with the Jed and Clinton Health Matters Campus Program. Penn recently affiliated with the program, whose team works with universities over the course of four years to “enhance mental health and substance abuse programming,” according to its website.
However, no timeline has been established for following up on the task force’s recommendations and the report does not delineate metrics for measuring its impact. According to Rostain, attempting to measure culture change could bring the University into “the thorny business of surveillance.”
Colleges and universities nationwide are seeing an upward trend in reported mental health concerns. A recent report by the UCLA Institute of Higher Education noted a 56 percent increase in the number of college freshman who “frequently” felt depressed versus five years ago, while 54.7 percent of undergraduates reported “overwhelming anxiety,” according to the 2014 National College Health Assessment.
Penn is not different from peer institutions, the report says. Co-Chair of the task force and former School of Arts and Sciences Dean Rebecca Bushnell said while the task force cannot change U.S. culture, it wants to see Penn make changes for its population.
The report recommends the translation of CAPS’s I CARE program — a curriculum that teaches how to recognize and approach students with mental health concerns — into electronic modules disseminated to faculty, staff and students. The report suggests an I CARE-trained liaison in each major student group.
The report also recommended standardizing the language used to communicate the schools’s leave of absence policies and making a leave of absence seem like a more acceptable choice. The task force found the four undergraduate schools had the same underlying policies on leaves of absence but described them differently.
“Taking time to take care of oneself ... is a means to the successful completion of a degree and not a barrier to degree completion,” the report says. Five percent of the class of 2013 took a leave of absence and “almost all” students who take leaves complete their degrees, according to the report.
The task force also recommended centralizing mental health resources for the University. During their interviews with members of the Penn community, Rostain and Bushnell said they found an overall lack of awareness of resources already available. The task force charges the University with creating a website that condenses mental health information by the fall of 2015.
Elana Stern, a member of the Green Ribbon Campaign, was among the students who met with members of the task force last spring. She found the task force receptive to the campaign’s suggestions, even though a student representative was left off the task force itself.
Before reading the report, she said she hoped to see insight on increased resources for CAPS and the addition of specializations for specific concerns, like eating disorders. The report itself does not address specializations within CAPS.
Already, Rostain and Bushnell said, the 2015 task force seems to have had a positive impact. Gutmann and Price took their suggestion to create and launch a 24/7 Penn help line, 215-898-HELP, answered by staff trained to help students with varying personal problems. CAPS also added three clinicians and a postdoctoral fellow last year, who have helped reduce wait times for initial appointments from 21.6 days at the end of 2013 to 8.5 days as of December, according to the report.
Director of CAPS Bill Alexander could not immediately be reached for comment for this article.
The task force will present its recommendations at the University Council meeting Wednesday at 4 p.m. in Bodek Lounge.
The first step, Bushnell said, is for the Penn community to read the report. “People have to ... take seriously what it is that we are saying,” she said.
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