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Penn’s suicide problem: After a year, task force’s suggestions lacking

Penn has a deadly problem. Philadelphia’s Ivy has seen a total of six students commit suicide since August 2013.

The suicide rate for college students in general is 6.5 to 7.5 suicides per 100,000 students, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. That puts the suicide rate at Penn, which has seen about 21,000 students in the last year-and-half, about five times higher than the national average.

The following students took their own lives:

  • Wendy Shung, 24, died in August 2013
  • Madison Holleran, 18, died in January 2014
  • Elvis Hatcher, 18, died in February 2014
  • Alice Wiley, 26, died over winter break in 2014
  • Theodric Reed, 22, died in September 2014
  • Amanda Hu, 20, died in September 2014 (After nearly five months since her death, the medical examiner’s office confirmed to Billy Penn Wednesday that despite a homicide unit investigating, Hu’s death was ruled a suicide.)

After the suicides garnered national attention, outcry against Penn started as students complained of a culture of perfectionism and an administration that valued world-class academics over students’ mental health.

So in response, the university dispatched a time-honored bureaucratic tool: The task force. The 10-person group, the school touted, would “examine the challenges confronting students that can affect their psychological health and wellbeing; review and assess the efficacy of Penn resources for helping students manage psychological problems, stress, or situational crises; and make recommendations related to programs, policies, and practices designed to improve the quality and safety of student life.”

The results from the Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare’s yearlong efforts are in: Eight pages worth of minor recommendations for the school including launching a website, defining stress for Penn’s faculty members (who Penn describes as “at the top of their fields,”) and making sure students know that it’s OK to take a leave of absence. All noble things. But again: 10 people with a total of 23 degrees. An additional 21 people consulted.

One full year. Eight pages — and the most tangible takeaways are a website and a flier for faculty. The task force also didn’t offer any deadlines or plans for implementation of the recommendations it did make. And while the task force was working on its report, at least two students committed suicide.

Students at Penn blasted the report, calling it “unrealistic” and “disappointing.” Penn junior Nate Stauffer, a psychology major, told The Daily Pennsylvanian this week that the report lacked depth.

“I’m not sure what I expected, but this is incredibly disappointing. A year has passed and we seem to be back right where we started,” he told the student newspaper. “The most infuriating part is that virtually any student grappling with mental health problems at Penn could have told the task force all of the information in this report a year ago.”

The eight-page report is small in comparison to other universities that have employed the “task force” mentality of dealing with problems on campus. Penn State President Eric Barron announced this week that he was accepting 18 recommendations made by the school’s Task Force on Sexual Assault and Harassment. That group drew up a 267-page report in five months.

At Virginia Tech, school officials on a task force reviewing the 2007 mass shooting took four months to draw up a 260-page report that offered recommendations for the school to improve after 32 people died in an on-campus massacre.

Jack Park, a junior at Penn who’s written about his experience attempting suicide and has advocated for additional resources at Penn, was pleased the conversation about suicide at Penn is ongoing and said stress for some students happens because they were once at the top of their classes — then they were thrust into competition with students just as smart as they are.

“When they stepped into Penn, they had been defining success with intellectual and social accomplishments,” Park said. “But they come here, and suddenly become not as successful because they’re now compared to each other.”

Penn hasn’t made public how much it spent to commission the task force, and school officials dodged questions about the price tag. School spokesman Ron Ozio wouldn’t take questions over the phone, and offered up the following statement to Billy Penn via email: “Penn is doing great things to support student psychological health. While changes have already taken place as a result of the Task Force’s work, there is more we will do to improve communication and education.”

Chairs of the task force Professors Rebecca Bushnell and Anthony Rostain didn’t respond to requests for comment on the task force’s final report that was released this week. Here’s a link to it since Penn did a pretty good job of burying it on their site.

Here’s a breakdown of what the task force did say:

1. Penn is already doing plenty 

In its final report, the task force spent much of the first three pages praising work that Penn has already done — some efforts Penn has had in place for years, others were implemented as part of preliminary recommendations made by the task force.

The group praised Penn’s Counseling and Psychological Services for hiring additional clinical staff in the spring of 2014: Three additional clinicians means students who aren’t in crisis who are seeking help waited an average of 8.5 days before seeing a clinician. Prior to that, students were waiting an average of 21.6 days.

It also later praised Penn’s implementation of a new hotline which was announced last year. Since going into effect in December, the HELP Line has responded to 54 calls: Two were handled as checks on the well-being of a student, 17 were transferred to the CAPS clinician on call and eight were requests for information. No word on what the other 27 calls were for.

2. Penn should make a website

The task force strongly recommended that Penn create a website by the fall of 2015 “to serve as a portal to the wealth of Penn resources for support of student psychological health and welfare.”

3. Penn should make sure students know that it’s OK to leave for a bit

In conversations with students, the task force learned a stigma is associated with taking a leave of absence from school for either a semester or a year to care for one’s own mental health. Here’s how Penn should get rid of that stigma, according to the task force:

– CAPS should better coordinate with the academic schools. (No guidance on how to do that.)

– Alumni, faculty and staff who have taken leaves at some point during their academic career should talk about their experiences.

– Make sure the transition for leaves of absence are smooth. (But the report offered no guidance on just how to do that.)

4. Penn should make sure staff and students know what stress is

Among the task force’s recommendations for engaging faculty and staff, from the report:

– Provide faculty and staff with a one-page summary of the warning signs of distress and a list of phone/email contacts for each school, and information on the centralized web portal.

– A reminder also could be emailed by the Dean, Department Chair, Undergraduate Chair, or Graduate Group Chair to faculty and teaching assistants at known high-stress times.

– The task force says a “MentalHealth.edu” module could be created for Penn staff that is modeled after the Alcohol.edu module and can be made available to new and continuing staff, but offers no guidance for how or when that could or should be implemented.

5. Everyone at Penn should work together

The task force thinks everyone should work together:

– According to the task force: “strong collaborations” between the Student Health Service and CAPS already exist, but there are opportunities to better coordinate efforts. Guidance the task force offers on how to do that: add a few questions to the Student Health Service’s intake survey that screens students for depression to look for other psychological issues.

– “Cultivate stronger partnerships” with the School of Social Policy and Practice, the School of Nursing, and the Perelman School of Medicine so that CAPS can provide outreach, education, and other services.

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