UPenn Credit: Picasa 2.0

David Cahn’s first task as a freshman reporter for the Daily Pennsylvanian was finding Penn student Timothy Hamlett.

It made sense. Hamlett, like Cahn, was from the New York City area, and the popular track athlete had last been seen by his family after saying he was visiting a friend in Manhattan. Cahn was on the crime beat. When Hamlett disappeared last Winter Break, police treated it as a missing person case.

Months later, authorities found Hamlett’s body in the Hudson River. His death was ruled suicide by drowning. By the time that discovery was made, much had changed for Cahn. Through his reporting, he had gotten to know Hamlett’s family and friends and learned firsthand how Hamlett went from a seemingly healthy athlete to showing signs of mental health problems to suicide. Cahn quit the paper. He decided he could better help his campus understand the issues that drove students like Hamlett to suicide through activism.

“I think that kind of clicked for me,” he said. “I underestimated this. We all underestimated this.”   

Cahn is one of many Penn students who have challenged Philadelphia’s Ivy League university to re-examine its culture of perfection and embrace the importance of mental health, as the campus continues to move on from the suicides of seven students in the last two-plus years. Experts and activists have questioned whether Penn’s administration has gone far enough to make reforms, but students describe a culture becoming more open to vulnerability. New student mental health clubs have been formed and others revived. They say awareness is spreading through all types of college kids, from athletes to liberal arts students to those in the Greek system.

“What they’re doing might be enough or might not be enough,” says senior Michael Shaid about the administration, “but the students are trying to take this in their own hands.”

‘Penn Face’ and the pressure to do more

Early in his freshman year, Jared Fenton was walking around with some people he had just met. Out of nowhere, one of them announced he would not want to attend Harvard and that if he got a letter inviting him to the university he would rip it up and throw it away. Another chimed in to say people at Harvard didn’t have any fun — that Penn was the “social Ivy” and as good academically as anywhere else.       

“The voraciousness with which they attacked Harvard,” Fenton said, “and said that ‘Penn is better, we’re the best, we’re perfect and here are all the reasons,’ it was just like so instant. I think that’s a great example of ‘Penn Face.’ Always having to present yourself as the best.”

Penn Face is a term familiar to most everyone on campus. It means putting on the facade that you’re perfect and your life is perfect, no matter how pressured you are to keep up with school and social life.

“You’re always on,” Fenton says. “And everything that you do is aimed at a specific purpose rather than just for fun.”

“There’s this pressure of ‘Yes, you can do more,’” says Conrad Mascarenhas, a sophomore. “[People] start out pre-med and are like, ‘this isn’t cool enough.’ They’re like, ‘I need to get a degree from Wharton as well’ and so they end up taking 6.5 or 7 courses per semester when normal course load is 4.”

Two years ago at this time, Penn students were gearing up for the routine of finals and Winter Break. When they returned a few weeks later in January, the campus was reeling. One student died by suicide during the break, another took her life in January just as the second semester began. A third took his life the first week of February. In total, the academic years of 2013-14 and 2014-15 included seven Penn students taking their own lives.

The average rate for suicide among American college students is about 6.5 to 7.5 per 100,000 people. With seven suicides in 20 months at a school with about 24,000 students, Penn’s rate was more than double the national average and similar to high incidences of suicide found in recent years at other schools. Three Tulane students took their own lives in the fall of 2014. Cornell had six suicides in the 2009-10 academic year.   

Penn is a close-knit campus. It’s called the ‘Penn bubble’ for a reason. If someone didn’t feel the pain of loss from personally knowing one of the seven suicide victims, he or she probably had a friend who did.

The suicide of Madison Holleran especially resonated. In late January 2014, the freshman cross country runner jumped off the roof of a parking garage near 15th and Spruce streets. News of her suicide spread nationally. Ethan Song, a senior who has helped at “Light The Night” events, raising awareness for mental health, remembers an overwhelming feeling of sadness and attention on campus. Everyone was talking about it. Holleran’s death followed the suicide of Alice Wiley and happened a couple of weeks before the suicide of Elvis Hatcher, leading students to look inward at themselves and to the university.

“I think after her publicized story it influenced a lot of people negatively and positively,” Song says. “Negative side, I think people just felt like it was the thing to do because it was just sort of a little push. It was an unintentional push, but I think people sort of saw suicide as an option, and I think that’s what sort of triggered them to go onto that path.

“Positive is, after these events it really got the Penn community thinking about the environment and what are ways that we can foster a healthier college life and bring mental health into the picture.”

The expansion of student groups

Fenton expected maybe 12 people to show up. He had started a new group called Penn Reflect. Its goal: To bring together students for impromptu discussions about stress, pressure, anything — in a safe space, away from professors and the normal campus pressures.

Around 40 people ended up coming for the first meeting in October and the same number for the second. For the third meeting, Fenton prepared to host it at a different campus “house” and expected attendance to increase further.

By the count of Ben Bolnick, who is spearheading an effort to create a board uniting Penn’s mental health groups, the university has 10 student organizations that are affiliated with mental health. Some of them, like Penn Reflect, are new. Others have experienced revitalization in the last two years. CogWell, which is led by Shaid and Samantha Stavis, trains students so they can reach out to others they see having trouble. Bridge helps incoming freshmen deal with stress. Active Minds aims to destigmatize mental health issues through events and engagement. The Consciousness Club uses meditation and yoga as stress relief.

Bolnick’s effort is called The Penn Wellness Steering Board. By the time of the first meeting last month, eight of the 10 mental health groups had gotten involved, as well as 14 student organizations such as fraternities and sororities, Muslim and Jewish student groups and many others. Bolnick hopes the board will lead groups throughout campus to think more about mental health and allow for collaboration on different ideas. Jane Meyer, who has been working with the effort and is the president of the Undergraduate Assembly, says the board is a sign of the diverse groups of people who care about the issue.      

“Something that many students are realizing now is that this isn’t just a topic or issue for a subset,” says Jane Meyer. “What you’re really seeing is people from all corners of campus coming forward and wanting to engage on these topics and wanting to learn more from their friends.”

Is Penn doing enough?

Penn president Amy Gutmann referenced vulnerability in her convocation speech this fall. Students say that’s not something she’s done before. After talking about Penn’s greatest alums and the importance of discovery, Gutmann said, “Challenges are inevitable. Setbacks will occur. But you’re not alone in navigating them. We are right here with you and ready to help. Never ever hesitate to ask for help. That’s what we are here for. Asking for help—far from signaling weakness or failure– is a most positive sign that you appreciate something very profound: no one, and that includes you and me, ever makes it through college, let alone life, on our own. The sooner we learn that lesson, the stronger and more successful we are likely to be.”

But Gutmann has also declined to meet with protesters from the Hamlett-Reed Mental Health Initiative who marched to her office in September asking for the administration to put a greater emphasis on students wellness. They listed demands and had a petition that included signatures by the mother of Hamlett, the mother of Theodric Reed — another student who died by suicide — and leaders of student government and mental health groups. Gutmann’s inclusion of vulnerability in her convocation speech but reticence to address the Hamlett-Reed Mental Health Initiative displays the contradictions some students see at Penn.

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There’s no doubt changes have been made. Penn’s Counseling and Psychological Services has reduced its average wait time from about three weeks in December 2013 to one week. It’s also added an after-hours emergency line and increased the diversity of its staff. CAPS director Bill Alexander did not respond to a request for a comment.

Meyer and others with the Student Assembly have been working with the administration introducing new programs for mental health and changes to existing ones. They laid these out in an email to the student body in late November. The efforts include a Penn Wellness App, an expansion of a program to familiarize incoming students with CAPS during New Student Orientation each fall and Penn Wellness Partners, which will help students better identify faculty and staff who can help them with Penn’s mental health resources.

“These things don’t happen overnight,” Bolnick says. “If something were to happen overnight then it wouldn’t last. That is frustrating for the student body that sees a problem and wants an immediate change and doesn’t understand that changes are already under way and do take time.”

Cahn helped lead the protest in September. It was on National Suicide Awareness Day. About 30 or 40 people participated, and many held signs with the names of the suicide victims.  

Cahn, while saying the university is going in the right direction, sees many of the institution’s initiatives as reactive rather than proactive. One of the main suggestions from the Hamlett-Reed Mental Health Initiative was assigning every incoming student at Penn a wellness counselor, the same way the university assigns academic counselors.  

“The reactive is, ‘I feel sad now I’ll seek someone out,’” Cahn says. “The proactive approach is ‘I already know and have met this person and know who to talk to.’”

He notes that later this month it will be one year since Hamlett disappeared, and his death ruled a suicide. It will also be two years since the death of Wiley and then in January two years since the death of Holleran.

For their families, Cahn hopes Penn continues moving in the right direction.

“Those people,” he says, “are still hurting.”

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...