Mental health. Two words every Penn student has heard before they set foot on Locust Walk. We all know just how prevalent conversations about mental health have become and its relation to tragedy, campus culture and the administration. However, I believe that we all have a hard time addressing overlooked topics that contribute to the stress, anxiety and restlessness that Penn unfortunately perpetuates. Throughout social media, the past student government election, DP columns and even the newly implemented task force, I’ve found one issue to be extremely overlooked: substance abuse.
Functioning as a forgotten struggle across students at Penn, I’ve seen substance abuse touch every single fragment of our campus, whether it be cultural groups, athletes, Greek life or those involved in performing arts. Across the country, 22.9 percent of college students meet the criteria for drug or alcohol dependence or abuse. And when it comes to stimulants, studies show that roughly 62 percent of students with a valid prescription for ADHD medication have diverted it to students without prescriptions or gone on to abuse it themselves to focus on their work.
While treating addiction is an extremely complex and uphill battle, I believe that the first step towards facing it is simple: recognizing it as a chronic disease that confuses our dialogue and action towards mental wellness. Students can’t simply stop using drugs for a few days and be cured. Hence, most students need long-term or repeated care to stop using them completely and recover.
The second step, which more than often proves to be the hardest, is creating an environment that helps students become comfortable with discussing substance abuse. In many respects, Penn has taken that step through the Vice Provost for University Life.
For example, First Step is a harm-reduction program through the Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Program Initiatives on campus. They even provide brief alcohol and drug intervention services for students who are experiencing negative results due to alcohol and other substance abuse. Most notably, “the program understands that students use and abuse alcohol and other drugs as a way to cope with stress, unwanted or uncomfortable feeling, social tensions, and low self-esteem.” By offering students a safe space to begin exploring why students fall into addiction, First Step is able to examine how to get them out.
Furthermore, Penn has also set up a mentorship program through an organization known as Drug and Alcohol Peer Advisors. Functioning as Penn’s student peer education group around issues relating to alcohol and other drugs, its members reflect the student body as it is composed of student leaders, athletes, members of Greek life and those in-between in order to talk about high risk behaviors that impact them as students and as people. Like First Step, DAPA promotes understanding and rehabilitation.
Despite having simplistic access to these resources, what I have found is that most students who deal with addiction are unaware of the resources around them and fail to see what they are going through as a problem that hinders their mental wellness. For some reason, when we discuss mental health at Penn, the only administrative resource we mention is Counseling and Psychological Services — and I think it’s time that we ask ourselves why that is.
Substance abuse works as a knife stabbing our efforts towards mental wellness on campus in the back. What saddens me is that we haven’t even acknowledged it exists, pulled the knife out or — better yet — bothered treating the wound. In part, I believe that there is not just a need for students to recognize substance abuse as a problem, but also for student powerhouses to effectively collaborate in and outside of the administration to tackle the issue in a rehabilitatory way. As a member of student government, I’ll take the blame for that.
Most students will admit that mental health and substance abuse go hand-in-hand. Therefore, if we are to serve as a resource to each other — faculty, staff administration and every person who intersects with our campus — our discussion of addiction must be rehabilitative rather than punishing.
We are all at Penn to promote academic achievement and personal growth through a healthy learning environment — to enhance academic productivity and personal wellbeing by encouraging healthy behaviors and lifestyle choices. Thus, to help each other reach academic and personal goals, we must spark hard conversations rather than hide them. If we are truly concerned about mental wellness on campus, we must combat every form of campus life that hinders it through collaboration, administrative transparency and an understanding that gleams of restoration.
CALVARY ROGERS is a College sophomore from Rochester, N.Y., studying political science. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Cal’s Corner” usually appears every Wednesday.
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.