civichouse
Photo: Evan Batov

Amid administrative outreach for information on student well-being, including a University-wide "Campus Conversation" and survey on student experiences, students gathered at Civic House on Oct. 25 to discuss how campus mental health resources can be improved. 

Civic House hosted the open forum in conjunction with Project Let's Erase the Stigma, or Project LETS, the student-run Penn chapter of a national organization that supports students and young adults with mental illness. 

At the forum, which was facilitated by two Civic House program assistants, students brainstormed a list of mental health and wellness resources offered on campus and watched a short TEDxPenn video, “Shedding Light on Student Depression,” where speaker Jack Park, a 2015 College graduate, discussed his experience with mental illness. 

Park talked frankly about his diagnosis with bipolar disorder, as well as about a time when he had thought about suicide. He added that he wanted to share his story to decrease the stigma around mental illness. 

Following the video, attendees shared their own experiences with campus mental health resources and discussed well-being at Penn. 

Students said Penn’s competitive academic culture, emphasis on pre-professionalism and stigma around mental illness created an unhealthy culture for self-care. 

Some brought up the administration’s responses to student suicides and other deaths, criticizing University email notifications as too impersonal and vague. Others described being overwhelmed by the list of mental health and wellness resources in these University emails, adding that the lack of information about the listed options made it difficult for students to know which of the options to use for their specific needs.

Fourth-year biology Ph.D. student Rohini Singh, who is an executive board member of the Counseling and Psychological Services Student Advisory Board, said members of the CAPS student board try to attend events like this forum as often as possible to get a sense of the conversations students are having about CAPS and campus mental health. 

While the CAPS student board is tasked with conveying "what the student community really thinks and needs back to CAPS," Singh said, the main obstacle to addressing student concerns is a slow administrative process.

“We’ve been having constant discussions regarding what can be done," she said. "We have been giving suggestions, but for the suggestions to take effect takes a while because they also have to undergo that administrative policy change process.”

But despite this delay, Singh said she has seen improvements in mental health resources over her three years as a member of the CAPS student board. She listed the growth in CAPS staff numbers, an increase in operating hours and the addition of a 24/7 on-call staff member as examples.

The Penn chapter of Project LETS is dedicated to creating a space for students with lived experience of mental illness, primarily through their Peer Mental Health Advocate Program, which they plan to implement starting next semester. College sophomore Rylee Park and Engineering sophomore Lauren Drake started the Penn chapter.

Photo: Julia Schorr

Drake, who is the coordinator for the advocate program, will train students to have one-on-one, long-term peer partnerships with other students who have similar mental health experiences. Project LETS’ collaboration with Civic House for the open forum was the Penn chapter’s first official event.

Prior to its collaboration with Project LETS, Civic House has hosted open forums with other student-led groups such as Penn First, as well as independent Civic House forums. According to College sophomore Johany Dubon, one of the Civic House program assistants, the forum is a way for students to meet new people by allowing organizations to use the Civic House space to hold facilitated discussions.

The next open forum will be during the second week of November.

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