It’s National Suicide Prevention Week. On Monday morning, Counseling and Psychological Services director Gregory Eells died. Although he was new to Penn, Eells had a long and extensive career in counseling and providing mental health support to students: At the time of his death, he had worked in the field for over 20 years.
I didn’t know Eells personally. He was his own person, with a life, family, and friends outside of Penn; this loss belongs first and foremost to them, and the people here who knew and worked with him. But I still feel his loss acutely, as a leader and source of support for students, and I know our community is feeling it too. But the best way to honor Eells’ legacy, I think, is to do what he spent his career doing: to endow our own experiences, even the most painful ones, with purpose and meaning by supporting others.
There are many people and groups at Penn working to raise awareness and eradicate stigma surrounding mental health issues, mirroring the focus of national efforts to prevent suicide. We say we need to have a conversation about mental health; we tell each other that it’s okay to ask for help, that it’s okay to not be okay. All of those statements are true. Those things are crucial to hear; at least, when I’ve struggled, they have been for me.
But, as we see when we watch our mental health experts and leaders fight their own battles, most of our issues won’t be fixed after one therapy session or one honest and open conversation. Many of our experiences with mental illness started before our Penn careers did and might very well continue long after we’re done here. That isn’t to say that things can’t or don’t get better, but the road to "better" can last a lifetime, and it might demand more of us than awareness alone.
I believe fervently that one of the most important and worthwhile things to stay for is the chance to support others. At a place like Penn where self-advancement (in work or academics) is often treated as the only and ultimate goal, this kind of caring can feel futile and forgettable.
But the kind of service that Eells practiced in his work is something we can honor him by modeling. In an interview he gave to Penn Today after assuming his new position, Eells said he envisioned "CAPS playing a role in creating a space for students to craft meaning, because it plays a huge role in having positive mental health.” I used to view my own experiences with mental illness and suicidal ideation as obstacles to having a conventional college experience. I’ve wasted a lot of time being mad at myself, and at the world, instead of thinking about how I could craft meaning from my own pain. But the only way I’ve been able to make sense of my own life, and the only way I can envision making sense of this tragedy, is to do that now.
I might not have known him, but I am proud of and inspired by Gregory Eells for living a life spent trying to help students in need. If you are sad, scared, or struggling right now: Know that you are creating meaning — in this community, in all of your communities — simply by existing, and I am proud of you for the same thing. Seek out the help that is there for you. Take time for yourself if you need to. When you feel ready, remember the words of theologian Henri Nouwen: “The main question is not ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’” You are uniquely positioned to honor those we’ve lost by helping those who are still here, who need someone to be there for them in the same way that you’ve needed someone. It is daunting. It is hard. But I’m so glad that you are here to do it.
The HELP Line: 215-898-HELP
Counseling and Psychological Services: 215-898-7021 (active 24/7)
Student Health Service: 215-746-3535
Office of the Vice Provost for University Life: 215-898-6081
University Chaplain’s Office: 215-898-8456
- 215-573-2727 (every day from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.)
- 215-515-7332 (texting service available 24/7)
ANA WEST is a College junior from Spring Lake, Mich. studying English. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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