At the campus vigil in memory of Ao "Olivia" Kong.

At the campus vigil in memory of Ao "Olivia" Kong.

Daily Pennsylvanian/YouTube

How Penn is planning to fix its suicide problem

President Amy Gutmann announced in a statement that the university’s mental health task force is being re-deployed.

Administrators at the University of Pennsylvania are reconvening a task force to examine the causes of suicide on campus and extending counseling hours in the wake of the death of Wharton undergrad Ao “Olivia” Kong.

Penn President Amy Gutmann and Provost Vincent Price said in a statement Tuesday that they “have asked the chairs of the Task Force, Anthony Rostain and Rebecca Bushnell, to immediately reconvene the Task Force to determine as expeditiously as possible what additional steps can be taken to help ensure the health and well-being of our students.

“In the process of completing this charge,” the statement continues, “the Task Force will also evaluate the impact of its previously implemented recommendations, and determine whether there are any changes that should be made to further improve their effectiveness.”

The university created the task force after the 6th student suicide in 2014, and released an eight-page report in February 2015. Students blasted the report, which suggested minor implementations and included no deadlines.

Vice Provost of University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum also sent an email to students, describing the updated schedule at campus psychological services and attaching a mental wellness guide titled “How to Help a Friend.”

“Recent, tragic events at Penn remind us powerfully of the need to build a community in which we all look out for one another,” Swain-Cade McCoullum wrote.

A University of Pennsylvania spokesperson declined multiple requests for comment on the moves.

Kong died last week after being struck by a moving Market-Frankford Line train at 40th Street Station. Her death has been ruled a suicide. Her passing became 10th suicide in three years, according to The Daily Pennsylvanian. A candlelight vigil in her memory last week drew dozens of students.

Kong’s death led to an increase in conversation around mental health and counseling services available on campus. A petition demanding that counseling services be expanded had netted just shy of 4,500 signatures by Wednesday morning.

Students reached by Billy Penn over the past week have stressed that the university should offer more services on campus since Kong’s death. Carly O’Donnell, a sophomore who penned a viral Facebook post asking several questions about the inadequacy of services available, would like to see more reforms, but also more information gathering.

“I do think that it is important that the university looks at CAPS, and maybe analyzes: What are we consistently hearing that’s negative about this counseling system that we have?”

Students complain of long wait times and difficulty keeping a consistent therapist for longer than a semester.

“I think having a better long-term option is pretty necessary,” says O’Donnell.

“Every single time something like this happens, they say ‘Go to CAPS, we’ve extended CAPS hours,’” junior Claudia Stedman told Billy Penn Monday, the day before the announcement. “Speaking with students and teachers that have actually sat on that task force or utilized CAPS themselves, a lot of them are frustrated because they feel like the administration is saying there’s this great service, but they themselves don’t think that it’s a great service.” Stedman, phased by complaints over wait times, sought therapy off-campus as a freshman.

Among the most concrete takeaways from the task force were to create a mental health-focused orientation program, introduce a stress management app, and bolster training and resources for psychological services on campus. While Gutmann and Price note that these recommendations had been followed, a February overview by The Daily Pennsylvanian showed that Penn Counseling and Psychological Services were not able to immediately confirm that each change had indeed happened.

The task force’s full report can be found here.

Penn’s student suicide rate is roughly double the national average. For young Americans between 15 and 24, suicide is the third-leading cause of death.

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