Gregory Eells, the executive director of Counseling and Psychological Services, died early Monday morning in Philadelphia.
His death was ruled a suicide by the Medical Examiner's Office, spokesperson James Garrow confirmed to The Daily Pennsylvanian, and reports indicate he jumped from a building in Center City Philadelphia.
In an email to the Penn community on Monday afternoon, written by Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum and Chief Wellness Office Benoit Dubé, the two administrators extended their condolence to Eells’ family. They described his death as sudden, but did not specify the cause of death.
Eells was appointed to lead CAPS in January 2019 and started his term in March. He had previously been the executive director of Counseling & Psychological Services at Cornell University and came to Penn after a nine-month search for a new director. Eells succeeded former Executive Director Bill Alexander, who retired after nine years in the role.
Eells’ appointment came after a series of student and faculty deaths by suicide drew attention to the state of mental health at Penn, and students were growing more active in raising awareness and demanding more resources from the University.
Eells was slated to work with the University’s first chief wellness officer, Benoit Dubé, to “oversee the next generation of enhancements to CAPS that emerged from last year’s operational review,” Provost Wendell Pritchett wrote in a press release at the time. Pritchett added that Eells would lead CAPS to “increase capacity” and “decrease the time between a first consultation and a first counseling appointment.”
In the months before his arrival, Eells met with members of the multiple student organizations, including Graduate and Professional Students Assembly, Penn Wellness, and the Penn Benjamins peer counseling group. Eells said that his focus as director would be getting to know the Penn community and build relationships with the students. The student leaders who worked with Eells remembered Eells as genuinely dedicated to helping students and honest about the issues he wanted to solve.
Former GAPSA president and fifth-year sociology Ph.D. student Haley Pilgrim, who worked closely with Eells, said that his “energy filled the room” and described a GAPSA general assembly meeting where Eells encouraged diverse and engaging discussions among the student representatives.
“He truly cared about the opinions of the graduate representatives, and they felt inspired by his desire to learn more,” Pilgrim said. “He was a lot of fun.”
GAPSA Vice President Matthew Lee, who has worked with Eells on graduate student mental health initiatives, said Eells was among the “most honest administrators” he had worked with. Lee, who is also a fourth-year nursing Ph.D. candidate, said Eells “openly acknowledged the fact that there were issues to be worked on,” such as the accessibility of mental health resources for graduate students.
Eells had a “passion for reaching people,” Lee said. “He was genuine, he was empathic, and he cared.”
“It is true that this is a terrible loss to the whole campus community, and that GAPSA has lost a wonderful source of support, as it was always clear that Dr. Eells’ concern for graduate student well-being was deep and genuine,” wrote current GAPSA president and sixth-year ancient history Ph.D. student Greg Callaghan in a statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian. “He was one of the very first administrators to reach out after the elections last year, and I was truly excited about working with him."
Former president of the Undergraduate Assembly and 2019 College graduate Michael Krone said that Eells had a “vibrant energy” and “creative, fresh ideas” for CAPS. Krone said Eells was a proponent of extending the reach of CAPS beyond its traditional offices to the entire campus, potentially by expanding the embedded model in which a CAPS clinician is stationed in Huntsman Hall.
“Hopefully that can be an element of Dr. Eells’s legacy: pioneering the element of a campus being wellness-focused,” Krone said.
Undergraduate Assembly president and College senior Natasha Menon wrote in email to The DP that the UA sends their “deepest condolences” to his family and added the UA will continue to work closely with CAPS to support students and improve wellness of students, faculty, and staff on campus.
Before his tenure at Cornell, Eells also served as director of the University Counseling Center at the University of Southern Mississippi for five years. Eells earned a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Oklahoma State University and has taught several graduate and undergraduate courses on counseling, social psychology, and developmental psychology.
Deputy News Editors Ashley Ahn and Conor Murray contributed reporting.
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