After a string of suicides in the past few years, students have banded together in a variety of ways to address issues of mental health. University–wide initiatives are often advertised, but smaller initiatives are all over campus, ranging from sorority–wide workshops to peer–run hotlines. Ego sat down with several student leaders of wellness organizations to talk candidly about alternative approaches to mental health, mental health within specific communities and of course, the controversial term "Penn Face."

  • Active Minds works to increase students’ awareness of mental health issues, provide information and resources regarding mental health, and serves as liaison between students and the mental health community.
  • SDT's Wellness Workshops, under the leadership of Rachel and two other members, are held two–to–three times a semester. The workshops include both professional and student speakers who help to lead discussions about mental health in an open and safe space. 
  • Penn Wellness works to foster discussion, collaboration, problem–solving and idea sharing among student communities and groups on wellness issues, initiatives, and events.
  • CAPS' Student Advisory Board allows students to act as liaisons between the undergraduate community and CAPS, in addition to raising awareness and working on initiatives related to mental wellness on campus. 

Kathryn Dewitt, C'18 — Active Minds Co–President

“Not everyone has a mental health disorder, but everyone has mental health,” notes Active Minds co–president Kathryn Dewitt, and just as everyone has mental health, the mental health of every microcosm of Penn varies. As Kathryn explains, from Wharton, to Greek life, to the performing arts, mental health cultures are truly unique, not part of a monolithic Penn world of mental health. For example, as a member of Penn’s LGBTQ community, the Lambda Alliance and the Queer Christian Fellowship (QCF), Kathryn notes some of the specific mental health issues facing the queer community, “I think there’s a lot about coming out… I think for queer students it could be a lot of loneliness and feeling like you don’t fit in until you find that space at Penn where you have a queer community or where you have a community that accepts you and lets you be who you want to be.” Moreover, with a higher rate of mental health disorders among queer students generally, potentially complex relationships with religion, and a higher rate of experiencing sexual assault for queer students as found in the AAU report on Penn, there are specific contexts that frame the mental health culture of the LGBTQ community at Penn.

Despite the unique circumstances of different groups at Penn, Kathryn believes there is a universal action students can take to improve mental health on campus. A challenge to both herself and others to do better, Kathryn explains that making an effort to be more connected people, to authentically check in with others and make “somebody feel heard,” can prevent “bigger issues later on by checking in early.” Besides this challenge to all, underused student resources like Reach–a–Peer Helpline (RAP–line), Penn Benjamins who act as “student listeners” and Actively Moving Forward, a group dedicated to grief support, can be extremely helpful. Not only are these resources here for students and run by students, but students can also report students they’re worried about to CAPS on an anonymous basis. Active Minds is tackling these problems too, focusing their efforts on leave policy advocacy, supporting Freshman, creating open dialogue about Mental Health on campus and honing in on specific community cultures of mental health with their “Mental Health Through My Eyes” initiative, partnering, among others, with Lambda, the Queer Student Association and the Latino Coalition. As Kathryn explains, “[E]veryone’s mental health story is different…” and while such uniqueness is vital in understanding mental health at Penn, student action and student resources exist across the board. 

Rachel Orlinsky, C'17 — SDT Wellness Workshops

In fall of 2015, Rachel Orlinsky decided that addressing wellness on a smaller scale would be more beneficial than some of the university–wide initiatives that were happening at the time. As risk manager of the Sigma Delta Tau sorority at the time, Rachel decided that wellness could fall under her domain, so she decided to start wellness workshops within SDT with two other members.

“I decided to plan the workshops in a smaller setting where people already know the members of the community and would feel it was an intimate, safe enough space to speak candidly,” she notes.

The particular issue is important to Rachel because she knows that everyone struggles: “The truth… is that everyone, including myself, deals with mental health issues and when no one talks about it, it can be really lonely and isolating.” She believes that the best way to cope with mental health issues is to talk with people, whether that be friends or professionals and finding positive coping mechanisms—for her, it’s dancing for the Sparks Dance Company here at Penn. She also believes that keeping things open between her and her friends helps with anxiety and stress.

Peter Moon, C'17 — Penn Wellness Chair

Though he certainly sees progress in Penn’s dialogue around mental health, Peter Moon, co–president of Active Minds and Chair of Penn Wellness, a coalition of mental health–focused groups, notes some general elements of Penn’s culture that can affect students. “There’s often a sense of competition rather than camaraderie which I think is, you know the stress is one thing… but I think what really makes that hard to deal with is when it feels like it feels like you have the perception that maybe you’re the only one going through this and that you don’t quite have the support system to help you through the challenges in your life. I think that tends to bring out more mental health problems just because whenever you feel like you’re the only one dealing with anything that just kind of compounds,” says Peter, reflecting on Penn at large.

While he notes that students that are members of minority groups face particular mental health challenges related to their life experiences, there is a familiar isolation that can occur at Penn among many students, even though, as Peter notes, since the string of suicides in 2014 campus has generally been more supportive. From Peter’s point of view, many students are familiar with resources available to them, yet many students still feel as if they’re not the ones to be benefiting from them despite Peter’s assertion that, “Most people could benefit, definitely at Penn, could benefit from the occasional visit to CAPS,” or some similar mental health resources. Peter notes that some students think they need a diagnosable mental health disorder to get support, for others their familial or cultural background eschew mental health considerations, and for many there still exists a stigma stemming from the messages we get from other students. Though, again, Peter sees these trends changing for the better overall, student groups are still playing an active role in the process. Penn Wellness, for example, is working on initiatives to support freshman and enhance student education about available resources. In addition to the hard work of organizations like Active Minds or the constituent groups of Penn Wellness to constantly improve mental health on campus, Peter points to the importance of “action items.” When we discuss mental health Peter believes in the power of asking how to solve problems instead of starting and ending discussions without future steps. “Again, it’s important to think about everybody else who’s going through things and how to permanently make that better instead of just having the same conversation two years from now.”

Allie Baretta, C'17 — CAPS, Undergraduate Chair of Student Advisory Board 

As undergraduate chair of the Student Advisory Board to CAPS, Allie’s goal is to bridge the gap between students and CAPS that is often felt amongst the Penn population. She also wants to eliminate the clinical feel of a CAPS triage so that students feel more comfortable upon their first visits. “I’ve had two friends and a family member affected by suicide,” Allie notes. Because of these tragedies, Allie decided to take initiative in her sophomore year to change the culture at Penn that so many of us often see. “For me, I had to make the choice to transfer and leave Penn or to change the way we see things here… to honor my friends.” Allie emphasized the importance of talking about mental health. “I’ve been to CAPS,” she says frankly. She wants everyone to feel like this is something that does not need to be, nor should it be, stigmatized.

Outside of her role with CAPS, Allie has made an effort to encourage her friends and members of her sorority to be open with their issues. That in itself, she recognizes, is enough to make a significant difference. Though Allie recognizes that people don’t want to admit their issues at Penn, she doesn’t love the term "Penn Face." "I don’t like it because I don’t think it’s just a Penn issue, it’s an everywhere issue.” She says that it’s common among people our age, especially at high–pressure institutions. This year, one of the Board’s goals is to connect different student groups to CAPS, including sports teams. The Board’s consistent goal, though, is to be ambassadors between students and CAPS so that students scheduled to go to CAPS don’t feel discouraged by the long wait times. They also want students who wouldn’t otherwise go to CAPS to do so. The Board has taken initiatives to make “myth–busting” posters that emphasize things like your parents don’t need to know you go to CAPS, and you don’t have to pay for it. Overall, Allie wants students to know: “It’s normal to have off days. It’s normal to need help. It’s not normal to just keep to yourself.” 

You can reach Counseling and Psychological Services (3624 Market Street) at 215–898–7021. More information can be found on their website here.

To find out about all the mental health resources and student groups that Penn has to offer, check out Penn Wellness' Resources List.


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