For the first time since a string of suicides sparked a conversation about mental health on campus, the Penn administration is putting words into action.
A new committee of administrators, professors and students has been formed to oversee changes in Penn’s mental health programs and initiatives. Unlike the task force created in the immediate aftermath of the suicides which merely provided non-binding recommendations, The Jed and Clinton Campus Program advisory team has the power to change and improve mental wellness efforts.
The advisory team was formed as part of Penn’s participation in The Jed and Clinton Foundation Health Matters Campus Program — a joint initiative between The Jed and Clinton Foundations that aims to promote mental wellness on college campuses, while also combatting substance abuse and suicide.
Universities taking part in The Campus Program are required to establish an advisory team, but Penn is taking it a step further by creating a multidisciplinary committee to oversee all new mental health initiatives on campus.
“We are very excited about this opportunity,” said Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum, an executive co-sponsor of the team.“Being able to rapidly implement changes in the services we offer makes for optimal support of student mental wellness initiatives.”
Assembling the advisors
The advisory team represents many corners of the Penn community. It is chaired by Counseling and Psychological Services Director Bill Alexander, and includes administrators such as Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush, Student Health Service Executive Director Giang Nguyen and University Chaplain Chaz Howard.
Leaders from the Graduate Student Center, the Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Program Initiatives and the Weingarten Learning Resource Center also serve on the committee alongside professors and students.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way. We need students on this committee to guide our work,” Alexander said of the inclusion of students on the advisory team. “But also, The Jed and Clinton Campus Program feels strongly that it should be a cross-representation of the entire University community.”
Students were asked to join the advisory team based on a displayed interest in the issue. One student was selected from the Undergraduate Assembly, while Active Minds and the CAPS Advisory Board supplied two students each.
The makeup of the team is quite different from that of the Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare, a group of 10 professors and administrators. At the time the task force was working, some were disappointed that students were not represented, though students were involved in working groups with the task force.
“They were really eager to listen to what I had to say,” College senior and advisory team member Devanshi Mehta said of the administrators on the team. Mehta, who is also the president of Active Minds at Penn, added that she felt the administrators encouraged the students on the committee to voice their input.
But to College senior and UA President Jane Meyer, another student on the team, administrators at Penn have always been eager to listen to students when it comes to mental health.
“There’s always been a willingness on behalf of the administration to work with students, but sometimes students just didn’t know how to get involved and get connected to the administrators or different working groups where they feel they could voice their opinions and make a difference,” Meyer explained. “I think the administration is working on making these efforts more visible so that students can take advantage of these opportunities to discuss these issues.”
Because the Jed and Clinton Foundations want campus advisory teams to have both power and resources at their disposal, they request that those who have the authority to implement mental health initiatives run the committees. At Penn, Swain-Cade McCoullum and Vice Provost for Education Beth Winkelstein are the executive co-sponsors who oversee the team.
“I really think it’s critical to be able to rapidly implement innovations in services and support to our students,” Swain-Cade McCoullum said. “The fact that those of us on the committee include people who have administrative oversight of offices and programs that support mental wellness is a real advantage over many other universities.”
The Vice Provost added that she is hopeful that the advisory team will have an “immediate impact” on campus.
Top of the agenda
In their first meeting last week, Penn’s new Jed and Clinton Campus Program advisory team put communication challenges, such as the reluctance of students to seek help, among its highest priorities.
The advisory team has a significant amount of work ahead — both the requirements set forth by The Campus Program and the responsibilities delegated by Penn.
“Part of the deal will be how to take the huge amount of work laid out by The [Campus] Program and divy it up and kind of monitor it over the course of the next several years,” Alexander said.
But Alexander said he believes the emphasis has been and will continue to be the causes of mental illness rather than on the quality of the mental health services available on campus.
“Penn wasn’t really lacking in any services to provide, or to treat, or to intervene after a tragedy on campus,” he said. “But the question, I think rightly so from the beginning, was, ‘What are the underlying reasons or cultural realities that support or that create, not only an individual self-harm, but a cluster of suicides?’”
Alexander agrees with the task force’s recommendation that the focus must be on creating a culture at Penn that emphasizes mental wellness. He said that this begins with a campus wide conversation — something that was jumpstarted by the recent student suicides.
“How long can we keep it going?” he asked. “My fear, after we were on the edge of the series of tragedies, was that the conversation wouldn’t last. I’m pleased that we are still talking about it.”
All advisory team members interviewed for this article emphasized a need to improve mental health communication across Penn’s schools. The decentralized structure of the University is something the Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare touched on in their final report.
"[W]e found that Penn has particular challenges that derive from the University’s size and decentralization,” the February report said. “Support programs are spread across the University’s 12 schools and its administrative divisions, which makes systematic coordination of these resources difficult.”
The centralization of resources is already taking place as the University develops a mental wellness app. Expected later this year, the app will be a one-stop-shop for Penn community members seeking information on mental wellness.
In a meeting in her office several hours before Convocation last month, Gutmann provided The DP with a preview of what she planned on telling the Class of 2019 about “changing the culture” at Penn.
“None of us achieve what we do by ourselves, and none of us achieve a lot without pitfalls, hitting landmines, having setbacks,” she said. “It’s really important [that students know this], especially in the day and age where so many young people have been rewarded for success continually and not told often enough that nobody just goes from success to success.”
While Penn continues to try to get this message across and promote mental wellness on campus, Gutmann said at the time that she and her colleagues will never stop looking for ways to improve.
“You will never hear us say ‘mission accomplished,’” Gutmann said. “This is an ongoing effort to continue to educate the community and aid people.”
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