Before arriving to campus, it's likely that incoming freshmen have already heard of the notion of Penn Face, the ”work hard, play hard” mantra, and maybe even the hyper-competitive club recruitment processes. While many of these phenomena do exist on campus, there are also many steps the University and student groups have taken to improve mental wellness and to offer additional resources for students in need of support.
The primary source of University support for students' mental health is Counseling and Psychological Services, which offers a variety of services including individual and group counseling, crisis intervention and psychological testing. Just this semester, CAPS has implemented nighttime calls so that clinicians are directly available by phone outside of normal CAPS’ operating hours.
CAPS also offers targeted programs for students of different identities who may have unique mental health needs. Dr. Yuhong He, CAPS’ international student specialist, offers counseling in Mandarin, while other clinicians also offer counseling in Spanish. In fall 2016, CAPS initiated “Body Love,” a series of monthly workshops for students who identify as women of color to discuss body image.
For some, however, going to CAPS on 3624 Market St. might be a far walk, and other issues such as extended wait times have historically served as deterrents. CAPS' Deputy Executive Director Meeta Kumar said this issue stems largely from an increased demand for treatment among students. Students have also reported longer wait times for those who request therapists with specific backgrounds, such as socioeconomic status and race.
CAPS is not intended to give long-term treatment, though, and varying messages to patients at the start of their treatments have prompted frustration among those who say they were not aware CAPS was generally a short-term facility and were unexpectedly referred out of CAPS.
“If you’re looking for specialty and long-term help, we can definitely help you with that,” Kumar said. “We are very well in touch with our Philadelphia partners. I want [new students] to know there’s a whole network here.”
If you’re looking for more informal treatment, you can find peer-to-peer support by checking in with student-led wellness groups. College sophomore Siraj Qureshi said student-led groups can offer a more genuine environment.
“Based on what I’ve heard from friends, CAPS is the most helpful, but CAPS is first and foremost a Penn organization,” Qureshi said. “Yes, they’re there to help you, but at the end of the day they have Penn’s interest in mind. That’s totally understandable, but something to keep in mind for new students.”
Penn Benjamins, the University’s only in-person peer counseling organization, is open in Harnwell College House and the Chaplain’s Office Sunday through Thursday from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. Its website provides short biographies of counselors on duty each night.
“The main purpose of Penn Benjamins is to provide a student who knows what it is like to be a Penn student but also has training and the ability to listen to your problems and help you solve them,” Penn Benjamins' former Director of External Affairs and 2018 Wharton graduate Phil Isom said. “We’ve all been through those issues personally.”
Another student-led support group on campus is Reach-A-Peer Helpline, which is on call at the number 215-573-2727 every night from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. and by text 24 hours a day. Other groups include Active Minds, which leads various initiatives to initiate campus conversations on mental health, and Project HEAL, a support group for those who have gone through eating disorders.
Mental health discussion permeates elsewhere at Penn, as well. Various outlets, including the Penn Women’s Center, the LGBT Center, and cultural houses such as the Pan Asian American Community House act as support systems for students.
After two campus conversations surrounding mental health in October and April, Penn President Amy Gutmann announced in an email in April that Penn will institute the position of a Chief Wellness Officer. In late July, the University announced Psychiatry professor Benoit Dubé will serve in this role. Dubé will oversee “Student Wellness Services,” a new department at Penn that will encompass CAPS, the Student Health Service, and the Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Program Initiatives.
A comprehensive list of resources can be found at Penn’s wellness portal, which was unveiled this past January and organizes the topic of wellness into eight categories: emotional, physical, mental, social, sexual, spiritual, financial, and occupational.
"You hear people say college gives [you] the best years of your life and that you’ll form lifelong friends; it sets the bar high and you think it all needs to start happening right away,” Penn Wellness co-chair and College senior Serena Vargulick said. “Coming in as high-achieving students, you need to make sure that you don’t spread yourself too thin. You need to recognize that the path you take is very much your own, and doesn’t need to be compared to whatever anyone else is doing.”
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