When Emma opened the door, I saw the extra pair of feet first. “Hi, I’m Jennifer,” she said.
I shook her hand and sat down. My bag and coat and laptop fell against me comfortably, forming a barrier between me and the tag team of social workers. I cannot describe the way I felt violated. No one had told me there were going to be two people in that meeting and, what was more important, no one had asked me. They had assumed that I was okay meeting with two people, when the truth was that I was barely okay meeting with one.
I should explain how I, your average white girl, ended up in a room across from two concerned medical professionals. I suffer from depression and anxiety. I have struggled with anorexia and self-injury. A few weeks prior to this meeting, I had headed to Student Health Service with what was likely an ulcer caused by chronic partying that doubled as self-medication.
When I left some concerning answers on an entry questionnaire, I was referred to the social work department by a well-meaning doctor who knew that I would refuse to go back to Counseling and Psychological Services. And I left the social work department feeling, for the very first time in my eight years of mental health problems, as though there was something wrong with me.
My friends must all know about this, you might think. Perhaps a trusted professor or work colleague? But the truth is that there are only about two people at Penn who will not be shocked to see my name at the bottom of this article. I never have felt as though I could share these problems — I prefer to project a “Penn Face” image of myself. Confident, strong and smart, certainly, but anxious and sad? Not so much.
There are certainly things that Penn could do to fix its mental health systems. I have not met a single person who has found CAPS to be helpful. CAPS is only open during regular business hours, which is not really helpful to most students. Olivia Kong killed herself at 7 a.m., a time of the day when most CAPS counselors were likely just trying to get on the train to go to work.
They do not have the resources to deal with anyone with long-term mental problems — I once left their offices with a sheet of referrals who did not pick up the phone (some were no longer practicing). However, I think that Penn’s problem with mental health runs much deeper than the organization of a relatively useless behavioral health group.
The heart of Penn’s behavioral health problem is a culture that treats mental health problems as a transient talking point. It ignores the collective decision that we have made to prioritize our “success” over everything else. In the past few days, my newsfeed has been flooded with messages about “self-care” and “love,” and this discussion is important. But where were those messages when people abandoned self-care for midterms three weeks ago? Why did it take the death of a student for people to open up to friends and social media about their struggles? Penn needs to implement substantive change not just in its services, but also in the way that it talks about mental health.
I am certainly a willing participant in this rat race. Anyone who knows me would tell you that I rarely talk about my mental health problems and that I wear my stress as a badge of pride. Yet these are exactly the traits of campus culture that we need to shift in order to prevent the next tragedy. We cannot brag about our all-nighters and look down upon those with fewer commitments or a lower GPA, but claim in the aftermath of a tragedy to be allies for our peers.
Let’s continue to push for structural change to the University and to CAPS, but let’s also embody the love and support that make a strong community where mental illness is not a dirty secret.
And so, I am writing today to do exactly that. I promise, in front of you all, to ask my friends how they are doing and wait for a real answer. I promise to be open about the fact that my depression sometimes takes over and scares me. I promise that I will talk about this when it’s appropriate — all the time — and not wait for the next suicide.
TRUDEL PARE is a College junior studyingpoliticalscience. She is involved in Bloomers, Wonk Tank and Wharton Undergraduate Healthcare Club. She can be reached at trudelp@ sas.upenn.edu, if anyone needs or wants to talk.
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