After three months of deliberation, Penn administrators have agreed to take substantial steps forward in making Penn a healthier campus. In honor of Thanksgiving, we commend them.
In September, the Hamlett-Reed Initiative called on Penn to address prevalent mental health issues on campus. In the past two years, seven Penn students have died by suicide, and countless others face depression and loneliness. The National College Health Assessment reports that almost a third of college students have felt “so depressed they were unable to function” at some point in the last 12 months. We mask these feelings with the “Penn Face.”
We requested six specific reforms to make a tangible impact on mental wellness at Penn: designated wellness counselors; online scheduling of Counseling and Psychological Services visits; the ability for students to schedule anonymous CAPS visits; proactive communication regarding mental health issues on campus; an external review of CAPS best practices, especially regarding student-athletes; and a New Student Orientation event to discuss mental health and introduce students to CAPS.
Our recommendations generated a broad consensus on campus. Student leaders joined with the family members of students who have died by suicide to call for immediate reform.
To date, our letter has been signed by almost a dozen individuals whose families have been personally impacted by suicide, along with the 2016, 2017 and 2018 Class Board presidents, the president of The Daily Pennsylvanian, the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic chairpersons, the presidents of the six major mental health groups on campus, along with the chairperson of Students Organizing for Unity and Liberation and the Penn Association for Gender Equity.
Our unity in calling for specific changes had an impact. Following our Silent March for Mental Health in September, student leaders met with administrators including the Vice Provost for University Life, and agreed to a framework for reform. In early November, administrators informed us that the following changes will be made in accordance with our recommendations.
Penn will appoint approximately 50 wellness partners to serve as a resource for students. In the spring, VPUL will select additional student wellness partners to join this program. We originally called for students to be assigned a wellness counselor on PennInTouch so they know exactly who to reach out to for support. Nonetheless, this is a major step forward for students on campus. It creates a strong new resource for students in need of help in the form of more accessible advice.
We called on Penn to allow students to schedule CAPS visits online. Many students have said that calling CAPS feels uncomfortable because of the stigma around mental health. Many students want to call but end up choosing not to do so. Administrators agreed to set up an online scheduler for triage calls (initial consultations), which is now available at https://uapps.vpul.upenn.edu/capsform/. This eliminates a substantial barrier to entry for students seeking to engage with CAPS.
Anonymous Visits to CAPS
Administrators rejected this recommendation. We think the Wellness Partners program sufficiently meets the need described here, which is to provide an alternative resource to students who feel that privacy issues are a barrier to seeking help from a CAPS clinician.
Proactive, Ongoing Communication
The administration needs to be more forthcoming about communicating with students about the resources that are available to them. Many students suffering from mental health issues simply do not know whom to turn to. We think the most effective avenue of communication for this information would be via email. Administrators are not yet ready to make progress here.
CAPS Best Practices
We asked administrators to review and report on the policies and practices of CAPS so that students can understand how CAPS works. Specifically, we called on administrators to review students leave policies and investigate how CAPS engages with students who face distinct stress factors, such as those abusing drugs, members of minority communities and student-athletes. The Jed Clinton Campus Advisory Group has spent this semester evaluating work issues and priorities for mental health at Penn. We look forward to receiving a transparent report of their findings soon.
It is important that new students be exposed to CAPS in a personalized way to help reduce the stigma around seeking help. For this reason, we believe Penn should host an NSO event introducing the CAPS staff and humanizing the organization. The administration has agreed to implement of “virtual” tour, introducing CAPS staff and the CAPS facility. We believe that students will react more strongly to a personal interaction with CAPS and know that there is plenty of time for such an event during NSO. Still, this virtual tour is a step forward. It will help students feel more comfortable with the CAPS team and the services they provide.
There is still much to be done on campus. Students need to fight the stigma around mental health. We need to create a culture where it is okay to seek help and where students can be comfortable being vulnerable. As the administration makes more resources available, it is up to the students to take advantage of them. From both a student and administrative perspective, the path forward is a long one.
We would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to Penn administrators. Not only do Penn’s leaders recognize the importance of combating mental health issues on campus, but they have now also taken a number of significant steps forward to address this issue.Comments powered by Disqus
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