It comes as no surprise that mental health is a huge topic at Penn. With external tragedies that have claimed the lives of several Penn students in just this year, the need for campus discussion and reflection is more necessary than ever. 

The administration has already made strides to acknowledge and facilitate honest dialogue about the subject. Emails about a “Campus Conversation” occurring today have been sent out to all undergraduate students. Counseling and Psychological Services is a constant resource for students, and many safe spaces in various organizations and cultural centers continue to exist for everyone. 

However, when talking about mental health, it’s easy to get lost in such a vague, “hot-button topic” phrase. Mental health may be a general term, but in reality, it looks so different to so many different people, especially to various communities and cultural groups on campus.

Mental health in minority groups versus their white counterparts; mental health in international students versus American students; mental health in various socioeconomic levels — mental health exists in many different lenses, and though many people do not fall into a certain category of mental health within their cultural or socioeconomic identities, there are still general discrepancies that exist and that we should acknowledge in our conversations.

Last semester, I had my own experience with CAPS, when I was feeling stressed-out and anxious in the middle of my freshman year. I attended weekly sessions, using the time to vent my feelings and sort through the problems in my head. I didn’t tell my parents until I came home for the summer, only because I felt like I had an obligation to let them know I had used such a resource.

Instead of providing immediate support and acceptance, my parents were at first defensive and confused. Why hadn’t I gone to them first? Why did I feel I needed professional services? Were they trying to prescribe me medicine I didn’t need? There was a tangible disconnect and misunderstanding, because my parents did not grow up with a space to talk about mental health — in my culture, it was simply not talked about, and when it was, it was seen as a foreign, stigmatized issue. 

This is not just my own singular experience — many Asian and Asian-American students here feel unable to discuss their own mental health issues to their parents, who do not understand how to talk about it, or who want to solve their children’s problems instead of simply listening to them and being supportive. 

Many Asian cultures do not emphasize dialogue or openness — when faced with an issue, the immediate reaction is to silently work through it and assume internal strength. Often, when Asian students admit their own mental health problems to their family, they are met with a dismissal of their issues, with many parents believing it’s an overreaction or an exaggeration. Only when these mental issues lead to serious consequences do family members and the greater community pay attention. 

International students, many of whom come from Asia, face the additional issue of being isolated and extremely far away from their homes, without the luxury of going home and disconnecting with the Penn bubble. For them, the unique challenge of being foreign to the United States, along with combatting the Asian culture of stigmatizing discussion of mental health, magnifies the struggles they must face. 

I cannot speak for the mental health experiences of other people, but listening to the concerns of black students after last year’s GroupMe incident and reading about the insecurities of low-income students in the Penn Disorientation Guide leads me to believe that we all face unique problems in the “labels” that we must exist under. 

In our future discussions, we must be cognizant of and sensitive to the various issues that different communities face, and understand that mental illness is not a homogenous, symptomatic result of life at Penn. Whether that means encouraging support groups for specific communities of people or a more nuanced, wider discussion, we need to foster a better space to talk about a large range of issues regarding mental health. 

When we talk about mental health, let’s encourage a multi-faceted view of the topic. Truly listening to the experiences of other people, regarding their background of any capacity, is essential in understanding and piecing together a more honest, eye-opening dialogue about mental health and what it means on Penn’s campus.


JESSICA LI is a College sophomore from Livingston, N.J., studying English and psychology. Her email address is jesli@sas.upenn.edu. "Road Jess Travelled" usually appears every other Monday. 

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