Even before arriving at Penn, a pre-frosh is looking to address student mental health concerns in a new way.
When he read an article from vice.com posted in the official Class of 2019 Facebook group, “,” by a rising senior at Columbia University, incoming College freshman Owain West wanted to do what he could to help his future peers.
After asking the input of fellow incoming freshmen, West decided to create the Facebook group “UPenn Mental Health Helpers,” as a space for students to support each other with issues related to mental health. Incoming freshmen are currently using the group to share their own stories and express support for others through the comment section.
“I had the idea that there was something we could do, something simple, to set up a support group so that such a thing would never happen, that people wouldn’t become so stressed out that they would resent the fact that they were going to such an academic institution,” West said. “So I said [in a post to the Penn 2019 group] that I would set up the [UPenn Mental Health Helpers] Facebook group that would be there so people could talk to other people when they needed help.”
West’s drive to positively influence the atmosphere of mental health on campus is also personal.
“I’ve had a history of knowing a lot of people who’ve had issues with mental health or depression, and it’s always been something that hurt me to see them go through,” West said. “I don’t want anyone else at Penn to have to go through that.”
The issue of mental health has received a great deal of attention at Penn in the past few years, highlighted by a string of student suicides that some believe were connected to Penn’s lack of resources for those struggling with mental illnesses. In response, Penn launched the Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare, and expanded the services offered through Counseling and Psychological Services .
Incoming Wharton freshman Melissa Matalon joined the group the day it was made.
“I struggle myself with being down in the dumps about school and friend situations, so I feel like being a part of a group, I can help people who need help too, or if I ever need help I can find help there,” she said. “And I think it’s a really good way to find positivity in a more private way than having to ask people you know in person.”
West said that the group has been “very well-received” by the pre-frosh community so far.
“It’s been absolutely fantastic seeing what people have to say. I’ve seen people tell their deepest stories. It’s such a beautiful moment of catharsis when we see people telling their deepest secrets and trusting other people,” he said. “If we can foster that sort of trust, brotherhood and sisterhood, among our Penn class and Penn community, then I think that would solve not all but at least some of the problems that have occurred in the Penn community with depression and mental health.”
Matalon said that the group is helping her with the transition to Penn.
“Being part of this group is great for me because I’ve already been able to see how many supportive people are going to be around,” Matalon said. “In the end there is really nothing to be worried about when you have a lot of people around who want to help. Nobody wants to feel stressed out. Having this groups lessens the worry.”
Incoming College and Wharton freshman Ruhy Patel agreed.
“I find a lot of people who have been in similar situations as me and who have similar opinions about life, and it’s really cool to see people be so supportive and to have a class that’s so supportive of each other before we even get on campus,” Patel said.
Incoming College freshman Mary Kate Dever joined the group from a different perspective. Dever entered Penn as a freshman last year but had to take a medical leave of absence after six weeks due to a concussion.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge the fact that there are mental health issues and it’s good to talk about them,” she said. There are definitely a lot of different stresses and pressures to do a lot of different things as a freshman, to get involved and go to classes as well ... It’s important to have peers to talk to, people on your level. If someone [in the group] really needs something I can just be there for them.”
Dever herself hopes to become a psychologist or counsellor.
Despite originally titling the group “UPenn 2019 Mental Health Helpers,” West dropped the “2019” and said that he wants to extend the group to the entire Penn community.
West acknowledged that official counselling, offered at places like CAPS, has its merits, but that the support provided by a peer group is beneficial in a different way.
“With fellow students, there is the possibility that they’ve gone through it as well and they can connect with it on a more personal level, rather than when there is a dichotomy between the person who needs help and the person who’s giving help,” he said. ”There is something to say for the official counselling, but I think right now there is a gap in terms of personal support.”
When he arrives at Penn, West hopes to establish the UPenn Mental Health Helpers as an official student group, and to potentially hold meetings and fundraisers.
“I’ve been in contact with a few other people in the group about their ideas about what we could do. First and foremost [the goal] is to be a peer support group network on the largest scale possible ... At least for some people in the group, I think it already has [created positive change].”