Last February, after a publicized string of suicides on campus, the Penn administration finally took public notice of the terrible state of mental health on campus, and President Amy Gutmann created a mental health task force to examine the psychological well-being of students.
It’s been half a year now since the task force report, and while Penn has made progress towards improving mental health, there’s more work to be done. Students are stressed and overwhelmed; some don’t know what resources are available to them at Penn. Mental health is still stigmatized on campus.
The parents of two Penn students who committed suicide and several student leaders, including The Daily Pennsylvanian President Matt Mantica, recently signed a letter to Gutmann that made clear to the administration where improvements to mental health can be made. The suggestions in the letter — now a petition on Change.org — are simple, easy-to-implement ways to provide additional resources to students that the University should strongly consider.
One suggestion we strongly support is assigning designated mental health counselors to each student on Penn InTouch. Students should care about their mental well-being and actively try to improve or manage it every day. Assigning students Counseling and Psychological Services counselors on Penn InTouch will at least get them thinking about their mental health before they even get to campus as freshmen.
While some might argue that assigning students designated CAPS counselors might overwhelm CAPS’ resources, if students feel like they would like to speak to CAPS, who is anyone to tell them no? And if a huge number of students take advantage of having a designated CAPS counselor, then clearly Penn has a larger mental health problem than we think.
In keeping with the theme of making CAPS more visible on campus, we agree that CAPS should have an active presence reaching out to students — whether via a newsletter or, preferably, in person. New Student Orientation is a time when CAPS can make an especially strong impact on Penn freshmen. NSO campus tours should include a stop by CAPS, as well as short information about the numerous services.
Penn should also host a mandatory mental-wellness presentation for incoming freshmen about mental health issues and how to manage their mental well-being. Most students remember the NSO safety presentation video of a student talking about when she was shot on campus, across the street from the President’s house. Based on the past few years, it seems as if it’s more likely for a Penn student to die by suicide than to be shot while on campus. That’s to say, mental health is the most pressing issue at Penn, so there’s no reason why students and the administration can’t partner to create an equally powerful and memorable in-person presentation about mental health.
We don’t fault the administration for not thinking of these solutions. The mental health task force report — arguably the culmination of the administration’s thought about mental health — had several good suggestions to improve mental health on campus, although the overall report was underwhelming. Since the report’s publication, Penn has created a central HELP Line for mental health-related emergencies, it has started the process of centralizing mental health resources online and it has created the mandatory “Thrive at Penn” wellness video for students. But other valuable suggestions, such as training leaders of student groups to look out for signs of mental health issues among their members, have not gained much traction.
Mental health is now clearly on administrators’ minds, and we hope it is one of their top priorities. But now that these ideas are out there, it’s up to the administration to implement them because they are simple ways to help improve mental health on campus.
The University said that it will be meeting with the letter’s student signatories in the coming days. We hope that when they do, it will be to start a serious discussion about the recommendations in the letter, rather than to appease a group of students it only sees as a problem.
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