Penn Student Suicides Prompt Task Force Probe Of Campus Stress

The University of Pennsylvania on Wednesday announced a task force to examine stress and mental health on the Philadelphia campus, still mourning two students who committed suicide this year.

The new Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare is to release recommendations "related to programs, policies, and practices designed to improve the quality" of student life in early 2015, the university said in a statement. It will be chaired by Rebecca Bushnell, former dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and Anthony Rostain, director of education for the Department of Psychiatry.

The task force announcement comes after two freshmen committed suicide within three weeks since classes resumed in January, sparking questions in the Penn community whether the Ivy League school adequately deals with student stress, which has been raised as a factor in one of the deaths.

Madison Holleran, a 19-year-old freshman track star, jumped off a parking garage in Philadelphia on Jan. 17. Elvis Hatcher, an 18-year-old math whiz, hanged himself on Feb. 4. Two other Penn undergraduates died from unrelated causes since December.

The university's statement doesn't mention the student deaths, but comes as much of the campus continues mourning the loss of their classmates.

Holleran family friend Bob Weckworth told the New York Daily News Madison wasn't happy with her grades. Holleran's father, James, said to the New York Post, "There was a lot more pressure in the classroom at Penn. She wasn’t normal happy Madison. Now she had worries and stress."

According to the latest National College Health Assessment survey in spring 2013, 84 percent of American students said they felt overwhelmed by all the work at some point in the previous year, including 48 percent who felt that way in the previous two weeks. Seven percent seriously considered suicide, and 1.5 percent said they had attempted it in the previous 12 months.

Dr. Victor Schwartz, medical director of the Jed Foundation, which advocates for better suicide prevention services in colleges, said universities face a "very challenging balancing act" after student suicides.

"What you're trying to do after an event like this both give the students a chance to process and grieve around what has happened, and keeping an eye out for anyone struggling with depression or other mental health problems," Schwartz told HuffPost.

Penn has issued statements in recent weeks highlighting counseling services available to students.

Counseling and Psychological Services student liaison Kief Kelly said the organization had been working on a program to teach freshmen how to seek counseling services. It had been set to launch the same weekend as Holleran's suicide, but the date was pushed back to avoid appearing "too soon" after the death, Kelly said.

After the second suicide and a story in the weekly student magazine 34th Street suggesting students had trouble getting access to university counseling, Penn announced it would hire three new clinical staff members and realign schedules to allow more flexibility in scheduling appointments.

"Mental health is just as important as physical health," said Alexandra Sternlicht, a sophomore and author of the 34th Street article. "It should be treated the same way, which is you can get treated immediately."

Elissa Wolf, a past president of the anonymous, student-led Reach-A-Peer Helpline, estimated a 20 percent to 30 percent increase in phone calls over the past few weeks. The confidential hotline is meant to be "an easy first step for any students that are stressed out," said Wolf.

Several students interviewed by The Huffington Post said they don't know if Penn's atmosphere creates more stress than at other schools. It's not that students pretend stress doesn't exist, they said. At Penn, people boast about how much stress they have.

"I think at Penn, there's a competition for who's the most stressed," said Chloe Bower, editor of 34th Street. She explained people will make comments like, "I have so much work this week, I don't know how I'm going to finish."

Wolf told of hearing people brag about being so busy they only have time for three hours of sleep a night.

One anonymous student wrote on Tumblr after the two suicides about a suicide attempt. The writer blamed Penn's culture for creating an environment where students aren't able to admit they need help:

I think that a part of the reason for these responses is the culture and values of Penn. Penn’s metric of success tends to involve wealth, prestige, and fulfilling careers. These are admirable, important goals. However, personal and emotional growth, loving friendships, and overcoming mental illnesses are important too. In a school and culture where these goals are not nurtured or encouraged, there can be painful side effects.

If Penn President Amy Gutmann simply told students it's fine to feel stressed at Penn, that would've been "much more powerful message than just telling us they had new staff," sophomore Eve Bowers said.

But Schwartz noted, "We don't hear about things that didn't happen."

"We focus on tragedies," Schwartz said. "We don't ever really get reports about how many people might be saved by going to counseling services."

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