Just over a week ago, this campus suffered, once again, the tragic loss of a member of our community. With that, once again, came grief, confusion, sadness and a renewed conversation about mental health at Penn.
Let me begin by saying that Penn can absolutely do more. Students and alumni have suggested diverse, actionable solutions such as expanding the capacity and follow–up ability at CAPS, creating a mental health day or simply not limiting the number of A's a professor can give out. Continuing to propose and discuss these flaws and solutions is essential to improving the state of mental health on campus.
However, immediately fixating on and blaming the institution, as I saw many people do in response to Olivia’s and past students’ deaths, can have an adverse effect. Instead of making prevention feel possible, waiting for those long term changes to be put into place can make the situation feel even more hopeless. This can be damaging if nobody also addresses a few often overlooked points.
Let’s start with “Penn Face.” I can’t even begin to tell you how much I hate that term, and how angry I get when anyone tries to use it to understand and describe mental health at Penn. The act of pretending that everything is okay when you’re really about to break down and cry is not specific to Penn. Any human who has gone through puberty has probably experienced this. Making it Penn–centric is unbelievably self–centered and obscures the reality of mental illness.
Mental illness can affect anyone and often begins to manifest in the late teens and early twenties. Unfortunately, that’s also the time when many people graduate high school and are thrust into a new era of life, surrounded by an unknown environment. For us, that’s when we came to Penn. So just because you never knew anyone with or heard about depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety or any other illness before coming here, doesn’t mean that Penn caused or failed to prevent all these hardships. The fact that many people have never been confronted with it before coming to college only makes it more difficult to have an open, honest dialogue about mental health. With time, that can change. My freshman and sophomore year candid conversations about mental health were few and far between. While it’s not necessarily easy, as a senior, I hear and see more open discussions than ever before. Whether it's a professor, someone you haven't spoken to since NSO or your best friend, on Facebook or in the DP, people are talking if you want to listen.
And yes, we’ve heard about more suicides at Penn than at other schools, but that could just be because we go here. Suicide is the second leading cause of death (16.5%) for ages 20–24 according to the most recent CDC data, after accidents. The prevalence rate is 13.7 for a population of 100,000. I am in no way presenting that statistic as acceptable or tolerable; any death, especially at our age, is one too many. But we need to be aware of the national state of mental health in our age group in order to properly identify if Penn is an anomaly. There should be data publicly available on deaths or hospitalizations in college; the American College Health Association's survey results are a good first step, but like any survey are subjective. Penn could be an anomaly; I wouldn't be surprised. Yet statistical significance, self–selection and predisposition are just a few factors that would need to be taken into account. As undergrads without professional degrees or experience in the public health field, we just have to be careful about drawing formal conclusions.
20.1% of 18–25 year olds in America experienced mental illness in the past year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. That’s a lot, but it means there are so many people in the world who have suffered and have also found their way to help. Though it can be, of course, unspeakably difficult to start treatment or therapy, it’s important to remember that there are options out there. Countless people, even at Penn, spend their entire lives helping others work to ease the pain of mental illness or researching new treatments.
On another note, applying a universal term to everyone normalizes mental illness. If everyone has “Penn Face,” then it’s just another part of going to school. Being stressed all the time can be traumatic, upsetting and just plain shitty. A stressful environment can, and does, trigger mental illness, especially in those genetically predisposed to it. But stress, while intricately linked to it, is not depression or anxiety disorder. The National Institute of Mental Health emphasizes this distinction by clarifying that in an anxiety disorder, the anxiety is “more than a temporary worry or fear.” It doesn’t go away, might not have an identifiable source and can get worse with time. While both depression and anxiety disorder can manifest in very different ways from person to person, depression is often similarly described as persistent and pervasive.
That being said, all of these illnesses are on a spectrum. Learning how to properly manage any form of mental pressure or trouble, including stress, in a healthy manner is important, especially as a young adult. Seeking help from a therapist, parent or friend can be beneficial for anyone feeling overwhelmed. The generalization inherent in “Penn Face” can be doubly problematic, though, when the relationship goes the other way and someone suffering from mental illness passes it off as simply stress because it seems normal at Penn.
It might not always seem like it, but Penn is full of communities of people ready to support each other at the drop of a hat. We may be pre–professional fucks, but underneath the layers of resumes and cover letter redrafts hide caring people. Housemates, dorm friends, recitation groups, TAs, professors, randos in the bathroom of Smokes’ or whoever. Loneliness is completely valid, but it’s worth reminding yourself about the network of people surrounding you. Simple things like reaching out to friends that seem stressed or unhappy or even smiling to strangers on Locust can do just as much good as calling for another committee to analyze Penn’s mental health. I’m not minimizing the difficulty of talking about mental health, just providing another perspective on the community.
So keep talking about what can improved; we need to, in order to prevent tragedies like Olivia’s death. But don’t diminish it to another case of Penn Face. Feeling hopeless, persistently sad, uninterested, un–energetic or having suicidal thoughts are not and should not be considered a or a normal part of Penn. Mental illness can manifest no matter what a school’s ranking is or if someone has a seemingly “perfect” life. We have the responsibility to keep reminding ourselves, and those around us, that there shouldn’t be any shame or stigma. And that as long as we’re at Penn, as long as we have a class, a club, those three people you always see at VP, a freshman hall, we have people that care and love each other. Let’s not wait around to show that.