Few issues in Penn’s history have affected Penn's community as profoundly and as relentlessly as those surrounding mental health on campus. In 2017, the conversation around stress and mental illness remained prominent throughout the year.
The death of seven students this year, along with dramatic policy changes on a national level that caused widespread instability and a series of natural disasters across the country, left large swaths of the University feeling battered, scared, and uneasy. During this time, Penn’s ability to provide for the mental health of its students came under even greater scrutiny than it had in previous years. Even as administrators worked to provide more resources, it became clear that their effort to support students had not been as vigorous, transparent, or comprehensive as it needed to be.
Nearing the end of the year, Penn leaders made several significant commitments to beef up the school’s mental health resources and set new expectations for themselves that students will look to monitor in 2018. Other community stakeholders are likely to continue critically assessing their role in promoting mental health at Penn, whether that means working to change club recruitment strategies or taking steps to destigmatize mental illness.
The events of 2017 firmly make mental health a top priority on Penn’s collective agenda moving into the next year. As a means of taking stock of how this conversation has evolved, here is a guide to the year’s most important developments in the realm of mental health:
A string of deaths on campus opened up an urgent conversation around mental health
In August, Penn’s method of notifying the University community about student deaths came under fire when students affected by the death by suicide of College senior Nicholas Moya found that many of their professors were not informed of the incident, even days after the event. This meant that some students had to independently inform their professors of Moya's death and make academic arrangements, even while they were grieving.
When both students and faculty spoke out against this “mind-boggling” policy, Penn moved to change it. Following the death of Wharton senior Henry Rogers in October, faculty, as well as students across all four undergraduate schools, were notified.
Nonetheless, throughout the rest of the semester, students continued to reflect on the death of Moya, who became the 14th Penn student to die by suicide since 2013. In December, a Department Chair from Penn Dental, Ricardo Telles, became the first known faculty member to die by suicide this year.
An art exhibit from College senior Kate Jeon documenting the names of these 14 students who have died by suicide raised complicated questions about how to discuss these deaths with sensitivity. Others who had been affected by previous deaths on campus said the way Penn communicates and manages a death by suicide can differ from case to case, leaving some students feeling supported and others grieving alone.
Moya’s death also brought renewed attention to Penn’s reconvened mental health task force, which concluded over the summer that ongoing initiatives around mental health were adequately addressing student needs. Students disputed this conclusion at various points throughout the year, expressing that among other issues, the University still needs to work on communicating the resources available at Counseling and Psychological Services with greater clarity and tweaking its academic schedule to provide adequate mid-year breaks.
Some students have also explicitly called for reform to the CAPS referral system. Approximately 15 percent of all students who visit CAPS are referred to an outside provider, which students say can disrupt their treatment, leaving them feeling not in control over their own recovery.
Students stepped forth to destigmatize mental illness and improve Penn’s culture
For years, students and faculty have identified Penn’s “hypercompetitive” culture as a contributing reason for poor mental wellness on campus. This year, various student groups stepped forward with initiatives to change that. New clubs in comedy and game design opened their memberships to all students, aiming to combat Penn’s competitive club culture, while leaders in the Undergraduate Assembly, the Student Activities Council, and UMOJA wrote columns calling on students to act against the exclusivity of student groups. Earlier this year, leaders in student government also wrote a list of potential guidelines for club recruitment, including rules banning resumes for freshmen and more than two rounds of interviews for general membership.
Individual students also began stepping up to destigmatize mental illness, as well as the general experience of struggling at an institution like Penn. Some shared the costs and challenges of taking psychiatric medication as a student, while others briefly suspended “Penn Face” to frankly discuss the reality of living with mental illness.
Penn acknowledged that students were struggling
In a remarkable move, Penn announced a school-wide “Campus Conversation” in October to discuss community resilience in the wake of various tragedies, including the deaths of Moya, Rogers, Law student Justin Hamano and Vet student Brett Cooper. The causes of Hamano's and Cooper’s deaths haven't been formally confirmed. According to current students, this was one of the only times that Penn acknowledged the connection between disparate events and one of the few times that the University has recognized that students are struggling.
Various student groups expressed high hopes leading up to the conversation, but many were disappointed that at the event, Penn’s top administrators did not address specific policy solutions that would improve the University’s resources and culture around mental wellness. Administrators didn't allow audience members to directly or publicly communicate their grievances to top administrators.
Nonetheless, administrators said that followup programming would be arranged after the conversation. In November, Penn President Amy Gutmann announced several new mental health initiatives, including the hiring of five new CAPS staffers. This was the second time in 2017 that Penn had decided to expand CAPS staff. In February, they hired four new staffers and their operating extended hours.
For students and campus officials, 2017 has been a watershed year for dialogue about and activism around mental health. Since the death of College freshman Madison Holleran in January 2014, which sparked a national conversation about mental illness and suicide, students have kept up the fight to destigmatize stress and unhappiness at Penn. These efforts, never popular at a university conscious of its elite brand, may have finally breached the administration’s reputational wall in recent months. But for community members affected by mental illness, more work can be done.
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