campusconversation
Photo: Julio Sosa

Penn’s Counseling and Psychological Services will hire five new, full-time staff members, Penn President Amy Gutmann announced Nov. 20 in an email to all undergraduate and graduate students. The move is in direct response to feedback received at the inaugural "Campus Conversation," held on Oct. 30. The increase in staff size is intended “to enable expansion of hours and a reduction in wait times.”

The email stated that Penn will also be implementing a new system to review administrative processes at CAPS. 

Gutmann's school-wide statement comes amid a series of calls from the student body for Penn to improve policies and resources surrounding mental health on campus. To date, 14 students at Penn have died by suicide since 2013.

“The staff at CAPS do an extraordinary job in caring for our students. Yet it was clear from the Campus Conversation that, even with the investments we have made to date, greater access to CAPS services is among the highest priorities for our community,” Gutmann wrote in the email, which was also signed by Penn Provost Wendell Pritchett.

CAPS hired four new therapists and extended its hours at the start of this academic year, but frustrations over lack of available long-term resources have not subsided. The email did not indicate whether the new staff members would be trained clinicians or more general, administrative assistants.

In addition to the proposed changes at CAPS, Gutmann’s email laid out a second administrative proposal in response to feedback received at the Campus Conversation. Penn will launch a “Campaign for Wellness,” which aims to implement new initiatives to increase the overall well-being of students on campus. The initiative will operate under the wider "Campaign for Community," which launched in 2015 to encourage discussion about issues that “may appear to be difficult or intractable." 

The email indicated that the new campaign would implement expanded programming for college houses and the Division of Recreation, would expand the "Take Your Professor to Lunch" program, and would create a website containing wellness resources and activities. 

Penn students said they are happy to see the University taking tangible steps in response to student feedback. 

“Getting the participation of the student body is pretty good, as opposed to just having bureaucrats make these decisions," said Media Liaison of Penn for Immigrant Rights and College sophomore Erik Vargas. 

Graduate and Professional Student Assembly President and third-year School of Design and Fels Institute of Government master's student Miles Owen agreed.

"I am glad that the administration listened to all students involved in the conversation by adding more staff members at CAPS and by stressing wellness in general," he said. "Providing more resources to support students mental and physical health helps to reduce problems before they occur."

However, Vargas also said he hoped to see more tangible policy solutions to the underlying challenges to mental health at Penn. 

“I think the goal should be to eliminate the causes for people needing to go to CAPS," he said. "One fear of this is that it’s a band-aid solution. This is a step in the right direction, but I fear that, especially at a lot of liberal institutions such as Penn, it becomes like ‘We did this and now there’s no reason to do more than this.’"

Members of the Penn group campaigning for graduate students to be granted a union, Graduate Employees Together-University of Pennsylvania, agreed. 

"These changes are not guaranteed to last, nor do they address structural issues in who can make decisions at Penn," read a statement from Graduate School of Education Ph.D. student and GET-UP member Miranda Weinberg. "We believe the best thing Penn could do for our overall wellness would be to negotiate a contract that guarantees adequate funding, access to health insurance, and a grievance procedure, to name just a few of the issues cited by graduate workers across the University."

Staff reporters Giovanna Paz and Manlu Liu contributed reporting. 

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