When Elana Stern read eight pages of recommendations issued by a Penn task force on suicide this week, she thought she’d missed something entirely. Maybe she downloaded the wrong version, she thought.
But for Stern and others in the Penn community looking for a path forward to improve the school after six suicides in the last year-and-half, the report drafted over the course of a year was all they had.
The main takeaways from it? Penn — like many universities — has a culture of perfectionism that breeds stress, and to fix that, Penn should make a website, print some fliers and work toward better mental health education. Stern says blaming the problem on cultural standards is a cop-out.
“I was expecting there to be data and numbers and a definitive way forward, and it isn’t there, and I actually think that they have truly skirted the real issue,” Stern, a senior, said. “It’s insulting to Penn students to say, ‘just stop being such perfectionists.’ Well, that’s what’s rewarded here.”
The Penn Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare was deployed by the university in February 2014 after four students committed suicide since August 2013, three of them in the early months of 2014. Mass student outcry followed as news of the deaths trickled into the national news.
The group of 10 Penn staff members — which was comprised of no students, two psychiatrists and eight administrators — was charged by the university to “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.”
While the task force was working on its report, two more students committed suicide. That means Penn’s six suicides in a year-and-a-half make the rate about five times higher than the national average.
The report and its recommendations have been criticized by students and faculty, some of whom are disappointed with the relatively short length and lack of a concrete timeline and others who claim the vague idea of getting rid of a culture of perfectionism is unrealistic.
Penn officials have defended the report. School spokesman Ron Ozio said it “has identified ways in which every person in the University community – faculty, students, staff and parents — can and should do their part to foster a healthier environment and to care for themselves and for each other.” Co-chairs of the task force Anthony Rostain and Rebecca Bushnell didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Colleges across the nation, especially Ivy Leagues, are grappling with the problem of mental illness on campus and how to deal with it — suicide is the second leading cause of death of students on college campuses. Some say it’s not the colleges’ job to provide students with mental healthcare while its main concern should be providing education. Many more say universities’ healthcare available for students suffering from mental illness is inadequate.
Pat Gainey, the Philadelphia Regional Director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said that if it were mononucleosis or the flu we were talking about, the idea that colleges should provide care wouldn’t even be a conversation.
“People think if we try hard enough, we could overcome our mental health problems,” Gainey said. “They don’t see it as a disease or something that needs intense medical intervention, and until we get over that, we’re always going to put too much emphasis on the person who is suffering as the person who needs to take the first steps.”
That idea is one of the main tenets of Penn’s Green Ribbon Campaign, a coalition of students and professors at the Ivy League school who are advocating for additional mental health resources for students seeking help.
Penn’s task force that was intended to find ways to improve the school’s response to mental illness examined its Counseling and Psychological Services system, and even went as far as to praise it for adding more clinicians and dropping average wait times from 21 days to eight days. It also noted that students who are in crisis are seen right away.
But Stern says that’s not enough.
“There’s this idea that mental health issues can be grouped into urgent and non-urgent, and that’s hugely problematic,” she said. “A student who may or may not be in crisis is not the best judge of that. If they are told they have to wait three weeks, they’re going to be in crisis.”
Others were disappointed in the lack of specificity in the task force’s final report. Specific suggestions it did make — like working to educate its faculty on signals of stress or considering an online mental health education module — had no time limits attached.
According to The Daily Pennsylvanian, when these concerns were brought up to the University Council on Wednesday, school Provost Vincent Price responded: “It doesn’t serve anyone’s interest to establish a timeline for the sake of announcing a timeline.”
And still more were thrown off by the report’s idealistic nature — it valued cultural change over structural change.
Nancy Wolf, a college mental health adviser based in Maryland who runs yourbridgeforward.com, said while schools undoubtedly put too much pressure on students to reach high levels of success, its those schools that also need to provide resources to young adults in need. And changing a culture isn’t immediately feasible.
“How exactly do you do that? Sing happy tunes for four years in college?” she said. “What kids need is a fully-staffed counseling center with mental health professionals.”
Jack Park, a Penn student who’s written about his experience attempting suicide, said he was satisfied that the task force has at least continued the conversation about mental illness on campus — but from his perspective, they can’t fix an Ivy League culture. He says stress for students that comes from not living up to certain standards can amplify already-existing mental illness.
“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.”
Stern and members of the Green Ribbon coalition say it’s up to Penn to make tangible changes, not idealistic ones.
“I just think Penn is a university that prides itself on an excellent healthcare network with some of the best hospitals,” Stern said, “and it is really shortchanging its students by not providing them the best mental healthcare resources as possible.”