Fourteen Penn students have died by suicide since February 2013, but by student accounts, Penn administrators have never acknowledged this directly to the student body — even to those who have been intimately affected by these deaths. While students say they recognize the complexities of navigating a discussion on this issue, many want the University to provide more transparency and clarity in their efforts to support those who need help.
Penn typically does not identify cause of death when they announce student deaths, unless the student’s family prefers otherwise. Friends of students who have died by suicide also said administrators did not discuss their classmates' causes of death with them in the days following the students' deaths.
In an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian, Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum said this is largely out of respect for the privacy of the student’s family and — if the student has died by suicide — concerns over the well-being of other students already struggling with their mental health.
“Researchers generally agree that unlike physical illness, other types of illness, depending on how a community approaches it, can literally infect other community members who may be particularly fragile,” Cade said, seemingly referencing the “suicide cluster effect,” which is based on studies that show suicide rates can rise following an increase in certain types of narratives on suicide.
Cade also said VPUL “seldom” knows the cause of death when they are notified of a student’s passing and do not necessarily make it a priority to find out. Typically, it is the Division of Public Safety that confirms cause of death from the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s office, though they do not share this information with students.
What happens when students need clarity about a classmate's death?
A postvention is an “organized response” to a death by suicide. On university campuses, postvention efforts are typically led by the administration.
Several postvention guides, including one from the Higher Education Mental Health Alliance, which VPUL uses as a resource, write that when communication on suicide is vague or limited, anxiety among those affected can increase, adding to their stress.
“[During a postvention], it is important that the death be addressed openly and directly. After a suicide, once the basic facts are known, any attempt to delay informing students will only encourage rumors,” the HEMHA guide reads.
When Class of 2019 College student Aran Rana died by suicide in February 2017, two of his best friends, College juniors Navya Dasari and Colin Lodewick, experienced this anxiety first-hand. In the days following Penn’s email announcement, Lodewick, who is the Arts editor for 34th Street, said he spent weeks repeatedly looking up Hong Kong obituaries to figure out what had actually happened.
“I knew initially that it was suicide because I knew that [Rana] had struggled with depression, but I sort of had to confront that without having it backed up, which was strange,” Lodewick said. “I had to do detective work to find how one of my closest friends had died. It wasn’t something that it seemed the University was willing to help me with.”
Dasari, who learned about Rana’s cause of death from someone who lived in his apartment building in Hong Kong, agreed.
“It was important to me to know how he died because he was my best friend," she said.
In the wake of a student death, family members may choose to give friends details of what happened including cause of death, but VPUL, which takes charge of providing “care and comfort and support,” doesn’t take this on as a responsibility, Cade said.
This separation of roles can pose a dilemma when students are looking for clarity.
“That’s the challenge — how do you comfort people who really want to know?” Cade said. “It’s a challenge. Since every case of a student death is different, I don’t think there will be ever be one answer [on] how.”
Leaving out details can be alienating, but getting them wrong is worse
Many students said their frustration with the way Penn communicates student deaths stems largely from how the University misdescribed the death of Wharton junior Olivia Kong in April 2016. In an email to Wharton students, Penn announced Kong’s death and called it an “accident,” although it was already largely known by her friends that Kong had died by suicide.
“Labelling it as an accident [as opposed to] a suicide are two completely different things that you should pay respect to, and I felt like — I felt a sort of betrayal,” said 2016 Wharton and Engineering graduate Calvin Nguyen, who was a member of Phi Gamma Nu, the business fraternity that Kong was in.
Nguyen also echoed Rana’s friends in stating that when Kong died, it was important to him to understand the circumstances of what had happened and to make sure those facts were right.
“When you get an email that refers to something as an ‘accident’ or brushes over the cause of death, especially if students have the understanding that it was a suicide, it feels like the school is trying to cover something up,” College junior and Penn Benjamins Co-Director Andreas Nolan said. “That can be very frustrating for students, when they feel like a problem isn’t being named or addressed.”
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