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Credit: Caroline Gibson

Amid a series of new initiatives and events intended to expand the discussion of mental health on campus, four Penn students had a frank conversation on what it is like to live with mental illness at Penn during a panel on Dec. 1. 

The Penn chapter of Project Let’s Erase the Stigma, or Project LETS, a national nonprofit focused on ending the stigma around and offering support to those who experience mental illnesses, hosted a panel titled “Living with Mental Illness at Penn” last Friday. 

The four panelists were College freshman and Daily Pennsylvanian Contributing Reporter Kaitlyn Boyle, College junior Victoria Kalbacher, College freshman Christina Miranda, and College student Luis Estevez, who was admitted into the Class of 2018 and took several leaves of absence. The four students spoke about various mental illnesses, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and schizophrenia.

Panelists talked about how their families and friends contributed to their recovery, how to access mental health resources at Penn, and how their time in college had changed the way they dealt with mental illness.

“Penn is a very academically caustic environment,” Estevez said. “Everyone here is trying to be perfect in ways that aren’t possible.” 

Three of the panelists also discussed their experience with Counseling and Psychological Services, specifically criticizing the CAPS referral process

Approximately 15 percent of all students who visit CAPS are referred to an outside provider, CAPS Director Bill Alexander said. While the CAPS website writes that students "make the final decision about whether or not they can work with a particular outside provider," various students have had experiences that suggests otherwise. Students have also said that the referral system is indicative of CAPS' larger identity as a short-term facility, which can neglect students' long-term recovery. 

Penn’s chapter of Project LETS was founded this semester and was one of several new groups that received funding from Penn Wellness. While the group had co-hosted an open forum with Civic House to discuss how campus mental health resources can be improved in October this year, this panel was the first event hosted solely by the chapter.

The organization aims to support students experience of mental illness, Project LETS Chapter Coordinator and College sophomore Lauren Drake said.

At the event, Miranda touched on what her ideal Penn looks like in terms of support for students with mental illnesses. She said people need to talk about mental illness, “not like it’s a dirty word,” but with empathy and support. Estevez echoed this point. 

“So many people who struggle with mental illness are intelligent,” Estevez said. “A lot of these people have wonderful minds that see the world in ways that neurotypical people don’t necessary have the presence of mind to.”

“I think it’s also important to be at an Ivy League [university] and speak about the fact that you have a mental illness because it does do some stigma reducing,” Kalbacher said. 

The panelists ended by giving advice on how to support others with mental illnesses.

“People are not their mental illness,” Miranda said. “You don’t have to know what to say, just be there.”