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Credit: Cindy Chen

About 30 students, faculty, and psychiatric professionals gathered at a panel April 11 to discuss suicidal behavior among college-aged individuals and how this relates to mental health at Penn.

Penn professors, psychiatric professionals, and a student talked about the biological, social, and environmental factors that put students at risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Drawing from their own research or clinical experience, the four panelists discussed how these risk factors come into play at Penn. The event was hosted by the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia and Penn’s Department of Psychiatry.

Multiple panelists talked about “Penn Face,” the tendency of Penn students to act as though their lives are perfect despite the challenges and stresses they are facing. 

Panelist Corinne Masur, a psychologist from the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia, said the prevalence of Penn Face raises questions about Penn's environment. She said a stronger campus community would lead students to feel less pressured to present an idealized version of themselves to others.

College senior Rebecca Pels described research she has conducted on mental health at Penn, addressing topics such as Penn Face and the connection between mental health and minority status.

“If you are of a background in which mental health was never spoken about during your upbringing, you may not only have difficulty identifying your struggles, but the likelihood that you will see your difficulties as related to your culture or minority group status is diminished,” Pels added. 

Even if mental health services are available, Psychiatry professor and event organizer Lawrence Blum said, students who are struggling often do not take advantage of them because of internal obstacles that prevent them from recognizing that they need help.

Pels suggested the University could destigmatize seeking mental health services if it required freshman students to meet with a mental health advisor the same way they are required to meet with an academic advisor.

Panelists also detailed various factors that put college students at high risk for suicide. Masur said adolescents' emotional intensity and impulsivity can make them more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts, while Pels said social media causes adolescents to negatively compare themselves to others. 

Counseling and Psychological Services Deputy Executive Director Meeta Kumar said minority students, such as students of color and LGBTQ+ students in particular, are more likely to experience suicidal thoughts.

Psychiatry professor Maria Oquendo said suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between 15 and 24 years old. She talked about biological factors that contribute to suicide risk, encouraging people to talk about mental health within families the same way they talk about genetic risk for cancer or heart disease.

“The idea that this is not only familial but genetic is a very powerful idea,” Oquendo said. 

Masur encouraged her fellow professionals to listen to the adolescents in their lives and look for subtle behaviors that reveal emotions such as hopelessness, anger, despair, and loss of interest.

Many of the attendees were mental health professionals who work in academic or clinical settings. Nana Asabere, a second-year psychiatry resident at the Perelman School of Medicine, said she sees a lot of Penn students professionally and came to the event to learn how to better approach their care.

“I’ve thought a lot about if there are things we can be doing as a community that would enable us to better screen, better intervene in a more powerful and impactful sense than some of the ways we often do when somebody is in crisis,” Asabere said. “I was glad to hear about some of the initiatives that are happening on Penn’s campus and all of the work that is going into thinking about this issue and attacking it.”