Task force created after Penn student suicides

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March 1, 2014 1:18:37 PM PST
The deaths of two University of Pennsylvania students in recent months have been ruled suicides.

The tragedies at Penn have initiated a larger conversation about student access to proper mental health care.

No one knows exactly why the two students took their lives, but experts say many students at academically elite universities see more stress, less sleep and over-committed schedules as badges of honor. For some students, this can contribute to dangerous psychological consequences.

Perhaps keeping up the image of who Madison Holleran was supposed to be became too exhausting. Her father told the NY Post that the 19-year-old Penn track star felt pressure in the classroom and was stressed.

Madison took her own life in January, and less than a month later Penn sophomore Elvis Hatcher hanged himself.

"We all kind of hide if we are feeling bad or scared," one student explained.

Students often refer to this as a "PENN Face," or masking signs of sadness or anxiety because they are signs of weakness.

Psychologist Dr. Guy Diamond says masking depression can magnify common issues in a student's life at any school.

"There's issues of sexuality, there's issues of drugs and alcohol and issues of general identity, and I think at Penn those things get intensified," said Dr. Guy Diamond, Director of Family Therapy Training Program at Drexel University.

Penn's Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS, has a variety of mental health resources for students, including crisis intervention, therapy and psychological screening.

But many students say students and some faculty are questioning the reach and effectiveness of the program.

"Is the Penn environment proper and is it addressing all the issues that need to be addressed? And maybe not, in light of these recent events," says Penn student Leland Criso.

In response to the recent tragedies, Penn President Amy Gutmann announced the formation of a new task force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare.

Initially the task force did not include students, which outraged many in the Penn Community.

On Monday Gutmann noted that concern in the Daily Pennsylvanian and said the task force would include student input by forming a working group made up of faculty and students.

Not good enough some say.

"I just feel like that's dumb," said Penn student Sarah Adeyinka. "Again, students are the ones who died. Why you wouldn't want to put them on the task force, I think it's telling them you don't have the expertise to tell us what we need to know about you."

"I don't think Penn is great about inclusiveness," said Dr. Toorjo Goshe. "It is a very top down administration structure and including students is not the first thing that comes to mind."

Penn Social Policy and Practice Professor Dr. Toorjo Goshe, who was elected as a liaison between students and administration, tells Action News the university has not committed enough resources to the problem. But he emphasizes, this is not just a Penn problem, but an Ivy League culture that is not adequately investing in mental health resources.

"We can't hide behind a door that says, 'look, I'm not going to open this door because I'm going to scare away funding.' When we have students' lives at risk, we need to address this; we need to be honest about it," said Dr. Goshe.

Some students believe Penn is doing the best it can with an extraordinarily complex issue.

Penn has repeatedly turned down requests by Action News for an on-camera interview, but in an email, Penn administrators cited federal regulations they say would compromise student confidentiality if students were on the new task force.

However, a legal expert and source close to Penn believes confidentiality does not have to be breached if the goal of the task force is to create policy change.

Statistically speaking, young adults who are attending colleges or universities are still at a lower risk for suicide than those not attending school.


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