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Students present at Table Talk were asked to sit with people they did not know to facilitate communication between people who would not ordinarily meet. 

Credit: Julio Sosa

Every couch and table was filled in Harnwell College House rooftop lounge on Tuesday as students gathered to engage in an open dialogue about mental health as part of the #TableTalkTuesday initiative launched by TableTalk Penn.

TableTalk is a student group dedicated to bringing together students at Penn that would not otherwise know each other to engage in conversation in different meaningful ways. #TableTalkTuesday is one of their initiatives, which involves biweekly open discussions on specific topics like religion, sexuality and food security.

The planning of the event was already well underway when the group learned of the death of Wharton junior Ao "Olivia" Kong last Monday. The suicide heralded a new significance for the discussion, titled "Mental Health: Breaking Down the Stigma."

Despite the tragedy, the group continued with the talk, organized in collaboration with other Penn Wellness student groups like Active Minds and Penn Benjamins.

“In a beautiful way it really galvanized all of the mental health and Penn Wellness groups together to really do something about what has been happening on campus,” TableTalk Penn founder and College junior Sophie Beren said.

Roughly 80 students convened, breaking out into smaller conversations of six to eight people facilitated by members of TableTalk. Open discussion was allowed to flow without structure, although facilitators came prepared with questions to start the conversation.

“It’s just a framework and a jumping off point in those smaller discussion groups for everyone to be able to share their opinion and also listen to other people’s experiences,” chair of TableTalkTuesday and College freshman Jeremy Wilson said.

Students felt the smaller group format was conducive to open discussion.

“I felt very comfortable,” College junior Taha Tariq said. “I thought everyone came with a very open mind. A couple people mentioned they had mental health issues so then I felt like I could say whatever I want.”

Many felt that conversations about issue of mental health are typically rare despite how prevalent mental illness is on campus.

“I think these are some of the conversations that aren’t happening enough,” College junior Mira Nathanson said. “I’m really excited that this happened.”

The talk comes amidst student dissatisfaction with the administration's reaction to Kong's death. The event filled a need for open dialogue on campus, Beren said.

“If this event weren’t happening there’s really no formal event or framework to bring students together to even share or talk about mental health and the recent events apart from one email the administration sent out today,” Beren said, referring to an email from Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum to undergraduates regarding extended Counseling and Psychological Services hours and a new guide on how students can support their peers.

With sensitive topics like mental health, the group feels it necessary to invite an expert in the field in order to guide the conversation in the right direction. Post-Doctoral fellow Alaina Silverman from CAPS attended the event and spoke about the importance of destigmatizing therapy.

“Sometimes we just need a little more support," Silverman said. "We need help so we don’t have to just wing it all the time, and that might be where therapy comes in."

TableTalk tries to create a safe space at each of their events in the hope that the open atmosphere will inspire progress.

“We wanted to create a forum for an environment that’s conducive to this conversation and get ideas for what needs to be done on campus out into the open,” Wharton sophomore and TableTalk co-president Emily Goldman said. 

TableTalk hopes that the event will spark further discussion among students and help break down the stigma around mental health.

“We hope that this event will be a place where people feel inspired and motivated to continue talking about these issues,” Beren said. 

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