February 08, 2016

Penn students sound off on school's 'misdirected' mental health resources

After string of suicides, students still feel administration can't properly address the issue

Wellness Mental Health
01132016_Penn_Engineering_School_GM Google/StreetView

The School of Engineering on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

This February marks two years since one of my best friends, Jack Park, opened up to me about his attempted suicide while attending the University of Pennsylvania.

We later filmed an interview that became one of many responses to mental health problems in the Ivy League, something that has since become a national concern.

The video was created just after our campus was thrown into mourning when 19-year-old Madison Holleran jumped to her death from a Philadelphia parking garage in January 2014. She expressed her last words in a note with gifts for her family.

But Holleran’s suicide was just the beginning of a tragic cycle of student suicides that would follow. By January 2016, the campus suffered its 10th suicide in three years

Throughout those years, and since, Penn administrators have attempted to revamp their approach to addressing mental health concerns. In February 2014, President Amy Gutmann and Provost Vincent Price announced the Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare to research student mental health and make recommendations to improve the campus experience in early 2015. This was the follow-up to the previous 2002 Mental Health Outreach Task Force, which focused on mental health issues post 9/11. 

Both task forces faced scrutiny from students on campus. According to the Daily Pennsylvanian, the University only applied four of six of the 2002 task force’s recommendations. The most recent task force was initially criticized for lacking student representation. Following that backlash, the task force released an 8-page final report in February 2015 that focused on more cultural changes than institutional ones. 

“I had one professor at Annenberg tell me, ‘Well if you're so sick then you shouldn't be in school.’”

Following that release, Gutmann and Price took the task force’s suggestion to launch 215-898-HELP (a 24/7 campus help hotline) and increased clinician hires that reduced wait times for students in need. There is currently no monetary figure of the university’s investment in such implementations. 

But despite the numerous attempts to figure out how to improve resources, some students on campus believe the current direction is regressive. When I graduated from Penn in 2014, the narrative centered around mental health issues was focused more on “the Penn culture” – the idea that students put too much pressure on themselves and that such competitiveness caused the problem.

However for Marlie Winslow, a recent Penn alumnus who was hospitalized twice during her tenure on campus, there are other aspects that the administration should also be observing. 

“I will say the mental health resources at Penn have improved immensely; I had an excellent psychiatrist that quite literally kept me alive,” said Winslow. “I do, however, think there is a gap in information when it comes to hospitalization ... there's a lot of advertisement on campus for 'here's a place to talk' or 'get your feelings out' but, more than likely, students (especially, Penn students) don't admit to or understand their declining mental health at this early stage, so to speak.”

Current students are also beginning to refocus that narrative on how administrators and staff have dealt with their mental health problems. Some argue that despite the improvements being made, those in charge need to improve their approach, understanding, and allocation of such resources. 

Rob’n Laurelli, a current senior and student liaison for the Penn Initiative for Minority Student Health, wants the administration’s involvement to be more intersectional.

“There's definitely room for a lot of improvement because often its resources are misdirected,” said Laurelli. “I'd like to see them be more intersectional with their conversations and actions they take regarding mental health, by including and actively thinking about people of color, LGBTQ+ people, people from low-income backgrounds, and all other members of marginalized groups in these discussions.”

On February 12-14, Penn will host the first annual Ivy League Conference on Mental Health that plans to unite student leaders from the eight peer schools to produce a plan of action to help address this issue. 

But this would be too late for early graduating senior Klaudia Amenábar to contribute to. Her abrupt departure came as a result of avoiding “problematic professors” who didn’t understand her mental illnesses. 

“My experience with mental health at least at Penn has been that there are a wealth of resources and support, but they're useless because professors aren't connected to them or to the students,” said Amenábar. “I had one professor at Annenberg tell me, ‘Well if you're so sick then you shouldn't be in school.’”

Now working a full-time job in New York City as Digital Media Strategist, Klaudia is excited to be in a “safer space with better people.” 

“My case is just an extreme example of what I believe is the true mental illness problem,” said Amenábar. “Professors and the policies of departments/the university/syllabi make any resources a moot point - the professor has the ultimate power over your academic life, it doesn't matter how much therapy you have.”

When I reached out for a comment, Penn administrators, faculty members and staff members either chose not to respond to the request or specifically declined to comment. I was often referred to the communications office which then referred me to information on the website or told me that they didn’t personally feel inclined to speak on the specific subject matter.  

Looking back on campus life when I was attending and now, it's clear that more money and attention doesn’t fix an issue if the focus is off. For too long, Penn student issues have been given a broad stroke of consideration without going any deeper than that.

Mental health issues shouldn’t be treated in the same regard as developing dining hall meal plans or academic curriculum schedules. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all diagnosis – it’s become clear that this matter is a complex issue that should be addressed intersectional and across various department levels within the university. 

Otherwise, I fear that we will tragically continue to see the death toll climb as resources and energy are spent not addressing the real issues.