This editorial appeared on the front page of the print edition on Monday, April 25, 2016.
It’s been two weeks since Wharton junior Ao “Olivia” Kong died by suicide. Since then, Fling has come and gone, finals are looming and as we have nine times before, we are beginning to move on from the discussion of mental health.
It’s easy to talk about mental health in response to tragedy. It’s harder to take immediate responsibility and action in an atmosphere that, as many have said, breeds competition and stress. While it’s easy to react on social media, it’s more difficult to empathize with a peer who attempts to combat stress by taking time off, dropping extracurriculars or seeking counseling.
We, as a student body, need to rise to the challenge of changing our collective need for pre-professional perfection. And to do this, we need to make mental health and illness part of an ongoing conversation at Penn, not something that is spoken about in whispers or kept silent, not something that only comes into the light after it culminates in a death. And further than that, we need to recognize our own roles in contributing to this toxic culture and take action to improve it.
We, as much as the administration, bear the burden of acknowledging and actively changing the culture around mental health at Penn. It’s easy to solely blame the administration, but in reality, students also impose unfair standards upon each other and on themselves.
That being said, the administration also plays a role in setting the tone of Penn’s culture.
Penn administrators have a responsibility to create a community where students feel that they can speak up when they need help and to provide students with adequate resources for mental health.
At this point, most students are aware of mental health resources on campus, but it’s not enough for these resources to passively exist. The stigma around interacting with these resources must be addressed. It’s those students who need help and are not engaging with existing resources that need to be reached.
Creating new resources, but putting the onus on students to seek them out is not sufficient to solve this problem. Doing so does not erase the barrier to getting help.
The defensiveness that characterizes the administration’s responses to student deaths has consistently distracted the conversation from what it should be: that mental illness is a treatable condition and something that we — both students and administrators — have to take responsibility for addressing.
Penn’s administration mishandled notifying students of Kong’s suicide in several ways. First, by sending two emails with differing information — a vague email to all undergraduates and then one including Kong’s name sent only to undergraduate Wharton students just minutes apart. Second, by labeling Kong’s death an “accident” in an email sent before the cause of death had been determined.
These missteps only added to an apparent pattern of reactive behavior on the part of Penn’s administration. Penn’s administration gives the impression that it prioritizes the preservation of the University’s image over the students’ wellbeings — regardless of whether this is actually the case.
Of course, improving campus culture around mental health and illnesses is a tall order, but one that the entire Penn community can begin to address with several simple steps.
First, we task the administration with being more approachable.
When a , there was a gathering at the student’s college master’s house that the university president and college dean attended, showing support for the student body. In the wake of student deaths at Penn, the limited visibility of top administrators is emblematic of the community’s general avoidance of fully dealing with mental health.
Many other schools such as Drexel, Brown and Princeton have presidential office hours. President Amy Gutmann, in contrast, is rarely even seen around campus — making Penn’s administration seem even more remote. In part, cultural changes at Penn need to come from the top-down, and Gutmann and top Penn administrators need to start leading by example.
We task the administration with creating a more streamlined way for students to take leaves of absence, be it for a semester or longer, and an easier way to return to Penn in a timely manner.
We task the administration with investigating one of the core contributors to Penn’s culture: academics.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology makes all of their freshmen first semester classes pass/fail. While Penn administrators need to determine what policies are right for Penn, it’s clear that action must be taken to create a healthier academic environment.
However, change also has to come from the student body.
We task students with defusing social pressures both inside and outside the classroom. Challenge the “work hard, play hard” mindset that currently defines success at Penn. Reflect on the way you and others talk about your problems — when someone tells you that they got six hours of sleep, do you respond by saying that you got four?
We task ourselves and other student groups and leaders with bringing resources to their constituents and scheduling regular discussions about mental health within their own communities.
Students have already created resources — Penn Wellness, Active Minds, Penn Benjamins and RAP Line, to name some. Student leaders should task themselves with having a thorough understanding of such resources, along with those provided by Counseling and Psychological Services.
Finally, we task each Penn student with being more present. Be present in your conversations, and go out of your way to be inclusive and to check in on yourself and your peers. Each student has to play their part in changing Penn’s culture through action, not just words.
We commend the actions of Engineering junior Ahmed Mohieldin, who organized the candlelit vigil held on the day of Kong’s death even though he did not personally know her. Likewise, College and Wharton junior Sophie Phillips’ organization of the demonstration “You Are Not Alone” and creation of a Change.org petition to address fundamental problems on campus also show what individual students can do. We should all follow their examples in taking leadership on this topic.
Penn — both the administration and the student body — has already taken some important steps toward making mental health issues more visible on campus. The fact that we’re still having this discussion about mental health and illness is already a step in the right direction.
But this time, we are going to take action.
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