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University Council - mental health task force, tobacco company divestment Credit: Yolanda Chen , Yolanda Chen

Penn’s mental health task force is in the process of synthesizing information and developing recommendations to improve mental health resources on campus after conducting research and interviews last semester and over the summer.

The task force, which was convened by President Amy Gutmann and Provost Vincent Price in February, will meet with student groups toward the end of September to present preliminary ideas.

“We’re in the data gathering, brainstorming stage and looking at what are the most feasible recommendations to include in the report,” said Anthony Rostain, a psychiatry professor who is the co-chair of the task force. “We’re going to be rolling out some exciting ideas once we’re done the process.”

He declined to discuss specific recommendations until they are ready to be presented to student groups next month.

Established after several student suicides and pressure on campus to address mental health, the task force was charged with evaluating the existing resources on campus and making recommendations to improve the psychological well-being of students.

Over the summer, the task force continued its research into the mental health resources already available at the University — including students’ satisfaction with Counseling and Psychological Services — and performed “benchmarking to compare what programs are happening here at Penn compared to what’s happening at other institutions,” said Rebecca Bushnell, the task force’s other co-chair, who is also an English professor and the former dean of the School of Arts and Sciences.

The group met with Victor Schwartz, the medical director of the Jed Foundation — an organization that works to promote mental health and prevent suicide among college students — to discuss best practices in college mental services.

“We really promote a kind of community public health approach,” Schwartz said in an interview. “The starting point is providing good and adequate clinical services to the campus, but that has to be part of a network of education, communication and community-building that helps to promote mental health and prevent suicide.”

He was asked not to discuss specific details of the meeting, but he said he is “impressed” with the mental health support already on campus and the task force’s progress.

“Mental health isn’t the core mission of what a university does, so it’s not always on the radar,” he said. “When you’ve gone through a period like this, a campus really needs to do a self-study, self-evaluation, talk to outside people to get another point of view, but that doesn’t always mean there’s something wrong with the system.”

The task group is broken into two working groups, with one addressing outreach and education and the other focusing on treatment and intervention. No students sit on the task force itself — which drew ire from students and faculty last semester — but students have been involved in the research process through participation in the working groups, Bushnell said.

One challenge the task force is addressing is how to coordinate diffuse resources that already exist.

“It’s been really interesting to see all the great things that are going on already,” Bushnell said. “At a place [like] Penn, which is so decentralized, we need to find a way to bring all these things together.”

In addition to resources being spread out across the University, policies also differ across schools. For example, each school has its own leave of absence policy — a topic that the treatment and intervention group is studying — which may make it difficult to standardize policies, Rostain said.

However, decentralization is not a challenge unique to Penn — it is a common problem at large, older universities, Schwartz said, where “many things have developed by accretion over long periods of time.”

The task force’s recommendations will also likely focus on increased communication between administrators and students, a goal that student groups have focused on. College junior Julie Bittar, chair of the Penn Undergraduate Health Coalition, said many students are ill-informed about policies and resources on campus.

“What I really hope they do is take strides in bridging information gaps and giving access to students,” she said, citing confusion over medical emergency policies as an example.

The task force is also studying CAPS services, crisis management and ways to identify students in distress. It will present its recommendations to the president and provost by the end of the year, and the report is expected to be made public in early 2015.

The task force is still accepting input from students, who can send comments to Bushnell or Rostain.

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