Welcome to “What ever happened with,” Billy Penn’s ongoing series that will look at older stories that may have been forgotten about or otherwise not followed up on. Whether it’s a delayed development project or an unsolved murder mystery, “What ever happened with” strives to tell you what’s up with that Philly thing you might have forgotten about.
Update Feb. 18: The Philadelphia medical examiner confirmed the death of Amanda Hu was ruled a suicide and the manner of death was drug intoxication.
UPenn sophomore Amanda Hu died on Sept. 28. More than two months later, the cause of her death hasn’t been officially settled — even as Penn held a support meeting after her death and announced new mental health initiatives with mixed reception.
Here’s what happened: According to police, Hu left in her room an empty bottle of prescription depression pills and two notes: one for her family and the other for her mental health doctor at Penn. Those signs pointed to suicide, and indeed that was mentioned in the Daily Pennsylvanian‘s initial story. However, hours later, The Inquirer reported that police began investigating the death as a possible homicide. Hu had also been bleeding from her mouth and hand, and hair was found in her hand, the paper revealed. Roommates had also heard banging and yelling at her door from someone they said was her boyfriend.
Since then, silence. There’s been a service for Hu, but in terms of official information being released — it’s been quiet. And it’s a big deal — if the medical examiner’s office rules Hu’s death a suicide, she’ll be the sixth Penn student to take their own life 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. In the last year-plus, Penn could have six suicides in a student body of about 21,000. That would make suicide nearly five times as prevalent at Penn than in the normal college population. The campus has attracted scrutiny for its lack of mental health concerns prior to the suicides and its corporate response since them.
So what’s up? Philadelphia Police spokesperson Christine O’Brien told Billy Penn the department’s homicide unit has completed a “thorough” investigation and all signs pointed to a suicide. The case is still active, she said, but they are no longer seeking interviews or looking for suspects. The only way their ruling could change, she said, would be results from the medical examiner’s office.
And that’s where things are stalled. The medical examiner’s office still considers the cause of death undetermined. Jeff Moran, a spokesperson for the medical examiner’s office, said that generally when a case is pending like this it is awaiting laboratory testing, which can take up to three months. Until the medical examiner’s ruling, the cause of death is not official and nor is further information available to the public.
Jack Park, a junior at Penn, shared on Tumblr his own previous suicide attempts as Penn has struggled with the aftermath and gave out all his contact info in case anyone wanted to call him for mental health advice. He said that while the university has made significant improvements since the suicides, he believes the mental health of undergraduates is less of a priority than the school’s image and its investments in its programs and buildings.
“If mental health makes better results, it might have been a bigger priority,” Park said.
He cited the impending relocation of Penn’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) program as an example. In January, CAPS will move from its current location near 36th and Walnut to near 36th and Market. According to the Daily Pennsylvanian, the move is happening because CAPS is being pushed out to make a room the construction of the Ronald O. Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics.
It’s a bigger location but not as central for students. The director of CAPS, Bill Alexander, even told the Daily Pennsylvanian the location might be an issue.
Since January, Penn has added three new employees to CAPS and increased its hours. In February, Penn started a Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare that is supposed to review Penn’s mental health climate and offer recommendations. After Hu’s death, Penn announced the formation of a 24-hour mental health hotline it would call the HELP Line. In an email to students this Monday, Penn president Amy Gutmann announced the HELP Line had launched.
Not that Penn was particularly helpful in discussing or highlighting any of those changes. Asked last month about whether the proposed HELP line had started or when it would, Ron Ozio, Penn’s director of media relations, said, “You got me.”
He suggested Billy Penn email him with specific requests regarding Penn’s continuing response to the suicides. Ozio responded to five questions about different aspects of Penn’s reactions to the suicides with one sentence about the help line: “We are hoping to have it up and running by the end of the year.”
Contacted again this week, Ozio disclosed further details of the HELP line but still didn’t address any other questions aside from copying and pasting the text from a press release the university released in February.
Via email, Rebecca Bushnell and Tony Rostain, Penn professors and chairpersons of the Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare, declined to say anything about the progress of the task force aside from saying it “is still in progress and on track to complete its work” early next year.
Park said he doesn’t want to sound overly critical when he talks about Penn, but he wants the mental health environment to improve.
“It’s not like some random SUV had six people on it and crashed and six people died,” Park said. “It was six bright, young people from Penn who tried to deliberately end their life and succeeded. It was not an accident. It’s something wrong from society.
“Basically the campus can’t be not accountable.”