UPenn PhD Student is 10th Suicide in Three Years

Have you been mourning? I have, or at least I have tried to. It's hard, you know, in college. To mourn. To remember. To reflect. We're busy. There's so much going on. So we forget. It's easier that way.
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Have you been mourning?

I have, or at least I have tried to. It's hard, you know, in college. To mourn. To remember. To reflect. We're busy. There's so much going on.

So we forget. It's easier that way.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. You probably don't even know what I'm talking about.

Last month one of my classmates died. He wasn't physically sick. There was no tragic accident. He wasn't in a hospital, surrounded by loving family members. No, he died by suicide. His name was Stephen Kyle Wilshusen.

We still don't know much about Stephen. From the Daily Pennsylvanian's one brief article after his death, we know he was a PhD student studying computer science and General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception lab on campus. He was an award-winning programmer. Beyond that, there was no follow-up on his death. Wilshusen became another statistic -- the 10th Penn suicide in three years.

Stephen died on December 31 in his home in Boulder, Colorado. I never met Stephen, but when I look at his picture I know that we have crossed paths before. I recognize him. Distinctly.

Stephen's death reminds me of last December 31st. That New Year's I was a freshly minted crime reporter for the Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn's student newspaper. It was the day I got my first official assignment -- to investigate the disappearance of Timothy Hamlett.

From the looks of it, Hamlett's disappearance looked routine, or at least as routine as teen disappearances get. He was a college athlete who was running into trouble in school who had been abusing athletic supplements. But as I dug into Timothy's past, I learned that there was much more to his story. Tim's friends recall him withdrawing from them, becoming distant. He had been seeing a therapist and was working around the clock as a student-athlete. Tim wasn't just a "missing person" -- he was a young person confronting challenging mental health issues.

As I built my own portrait of Timothy, I started to feel a genuine respect -- a kinship of sorts --with the talented young track star. Tim had this wit that left his friends on their knees cracking up with laughter and a keen sense of intelligence; he wanted to go into marketing and enjoyed the humanities.

The intense tragedy of Tim's disappearance -- and its impact on the people who knew him best -- didn't fully hit me until I met Tim's roommate. A fellow track athlete, his roommate was holding back tears during our interview. He was very upset and on the defense; he wanted to make sure I wasn't going to slander his close friend. The young man described Tim as someone he deeply respected; Hamlett was his high school track rival, and the idea of racing alongside Tim was one of the reasons he chose to attend Penn. At the end of our conversation, I asked him if there was anything else he wanted to say. "I just want to see him around again," he told me.

Timothy was found dead in June in the Hudson River. I didn't see it coming. Even after Timothy was missing for months, I convinced myself he was alive. I'd get to see him and interview him. He and I would laugh at how much I knew about him without ever having met him.

When Tim was found dead, it really hit me for the first time just how bad Penn's mental health crisis had gotten. So I decided to partner with student leaders in an effort to push for tangible reforms on campus. Though I am no expert in mental health, I had developed a strong relationship with Timothy's mother, after dozens of interviews. I thought if I could bring student leaders together with recently bereaved mothers, their collective voice could penetrate the Penn bureaucracy.

I got together with a large number of leaders at Penn -- class presidents, Greek leaders, mental health groups and together with Katherine Hamlett and Linda Douglas, whose son had passed away in 2014, we proposed a series of reforms. These ideas were obvious things - nothing fancy. People should be able to see counselors anonymously. We should have a wellness advisor's photo on Penn in Touch, our online campus portal, so we know who to talk to when we're in trouble. We should be able to schedule sessions with our school's counseling center (CAPS) online. There should be a bigger focus on mental health during New Student Orientation -- for students as well as parents.

It's been almost six months since we proposed these changes. The website to schedule CAPS appointments is a link lost on the Internet -- Penn students don't know where to find it. I haven't run into a single wellness advisor -- if they exist, they're doing a great job of hiding. I haven't received a single email from CAPS. And the mental wellness app Penn touts as a large success -- the one you might not even know exists -- barely works. I know, because I'm one of the few people who has actually downloaded it.

Penn spends a lot of time paying lip service to reform. But the fact of the matter is -- 10 suicides later -- there has been no meaningful administrative action.

I highlight the word meaningful because I think it's important to make a distinction between public relations and real change. Real change means that students feel like mental health is a priority -- most people I've talked to don't. It means instead of setting up a new committee to debate the issue, making simple changes -- like the ability to schedule CAPS session online, access to anonymous counseling, and introducing me to a wellness counselor before I start to battle with mental health issues, not after. It means offering extra resources to athletes and minorities and bringing in objective third parties to investigate what keeps going wrong.

I get it -- there's no quick fix to mental health issues. It's a national problem. What makes me so dissatisfied with Amy Gutmann, Penn's president, and the rest of Penn's leadership team is not that we've had 10 suicides in three years -- it's that administrators aren't going to do anything about it. Reasonable people can differ on the correct approach to reforming the mental health support network at Penn -- but I don't think reasonable people can differ on the fact that our administration is failing us. Tangible, simple solutions are being passed-over in favor of expedient ones.

A large part of the problem is that our administrators have intellectualized this issue. When I met with administrators earlier this year, I was left with the distinct impression that they care more about public relations and statistics than about fixing this issue. They think it comes with the territory, so to speak. For example, when I told administrators that all students face mental health issues to some extent, more than one person literally laughed in my face. Like laughed out loud.

Emotions matter. Ten people are dead. Timothy Hamlett would have turned 22 earlier this month. He probably would have gone out with his friends to celebrate. Just like you would.

To Penn, Katherine Hamlett and dozens of bereaved mothers are invisible. But to me, they are real. And to them, the pain of their loss isn't going away.

So instead of treating suicides as statistics, let's make them emotional. That way, we can deal with them. Because whether we acknowledge it or not, 10 students have died on our watch.


If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.

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