Mental health is a lightning-rod issue at Penn. This is for good reason: in the last three years, a shocking ten Penn students have taken their own lives. But as I have read article after article on this issue and spent hours talking about it with friends, I have come to feel that the conversation about mental wellness on Penn’s campus is still somehow incomplete.
The problem with the way that we discuss mental health at Penn is that we emphasize the “at Penn” part far too much. In doing so, we have tricked ourselves into thinking that mental health is specifically a Penn problem. If we are to fully grasp the reality of this issue, we need to consider the broader context of mental healthcare in our society.
This past school year, I spent two days a week at an outpatient mental health facility in downtown Philadelphia. I reviewed psychological records as a research assistant at the Center for Mental Health Policy and Services Research.
Most of the clients which this clinic serves are low income. They have a wide range of mental health issues: some suffer from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder; others have generalized anxiety disorder or depression. Some have coinciding challenges with substance abuse, and many have a history of suicidal behavior.
The clients whose records I reviewed come from all walks of life, and their narratives sometimes felt uncomfortably close to home. Some didn’t make it past elementary school, while others were successful students at Drexel, Temple and yes, even Penn, before some trigger caused their life to unravel. Some are in their eighties; others were born within months of me. Some had inpatient admissions at HUP, and many live within a mile or two of campus.
These records told graphic, heart-wrenching stories of poverty, abuse and violence. The predictable trajectory of a middle-aged person with an extensive history of childhood sexual trauma who still struggles with PTSD and Major Depressive Disorder became startlingly familiar.
These clients worked hard to overcome their unimaginable combination of illness and circumstance. Some set goals and found their way back to school, employment, and independent living. Other stories did not end happily. There were breakdowns and relapses, and some clients vanished from treatment just when they were starting to improve.
Yet time and time again, these people showed a deep desire to live a life defined by their endurance instead of their diagnosis. I was always left inspired by their hope and their humanity on my ride back to campus.
So: what does all this mean for us? The painful experiences we have had with suicide have sparked an important dialogue at Penn. However, that dialogue has taken place entirely within the so-called “Penn bubble.” We are working hard to destigmatize mental illness and to encourage emotional well-being among Penn students, but we are still gripped with fear when we encounter a homeless man with psychosis on Locust Walk late at night.
We should recognize that even if inadequate, we have better mental health resources than most. Few Philadelphians have free access to anything like CAPS. Most are consigned to overcrowded, under-resourced facilities that can barely see many clients more than once every month. And those who can make it to these facilities at all are the lucky ones: over Americans with mental illness are uninsured, and of mental illness among adults in the US goes untreated.
This is not to diminish the serious issues with emotional and mental well-being at Penn. Our suicide rate is appalling. The University has been incredibly reactive in its approach to this issue, and many students believe CAPS is neither effective nor accessible.
We are right to be angry about mental health. But if we care so much about mental health here then we ought to be just as passionate about it in the wider community in which we live, because mental health issues do not only exist on this campus during the sliver of our lives that we spend at Penn. We cannot forget the 120,000+ other lives that have been taken by suicide across America in the last three years and the millions who continue to suffer without the treatment they need.
Wherever you find yourself this summer, keep the conversation about mental health going. Talk to your friends and family outside of Penn about this issue. Spend some time learning about how mental health issues manifest themselves in your community.
During this election cycle, we can also challenge candidates at all levels of government - in town halls, on social media, etc - to talk about mental health. We can push them to make it part of their platforms. Most importantly, we can factor a candidate’s commitment to mental health into our decision about whether to support him or her at the ballot box. Imagine the power if we made mental health a voting issue.
Mental health has found a voice at Penn. Let’s work together to give it a voice everywhere.
JACK HOSTAGER is a rising College sophomore from Dubuque, Iowa. “Hostager’s Take” appears every other Thursday.Comments powered by Disqus
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