Don’t Get It Twisted Tuesday: Mental Health at University

I think I like the sound of “Don’t Get Get It Twisted Tuesday”, let’s see where we end up. By no means am I an expert on the following subject matter – I am just writing about what I’ve seen in the news, a little statistics, and to help break a stigma.

Today I go off the usual topics of ecology, conservation, conferences, research, and biology to delve into something a little different. Yesterday morning, my commute was terrible. It took me 45 minutes to drive 20 blocks instead of the usual 10-15 because police had sections of streets blocked off and were rerouting trains and buses. It was the strangest sight and I didn’t find out why that was happening until mid afternoon yesterday. Much to my dismay and heartbreak, ANOTHER Penn student had seemingly committed suicide and thrown herself in front of a train at 40th Street Station. This is absolutely tragic, and to say otherwise means that you don’t quite understand mental health issues or the pressure the university, particular its president, Amy Gutmann, has been facing to change the way Penn handles its mental health crises and potentially its overall culture on campus.

Depression and anxiety are the main causes of suicide which have spiked in recent years on college campuses around the United States and Europe. The rise of social media and constantly being plugged in, has also allowed people to manipulate their image into a seemingly perfect life. Add that superficial pressure onto the massive changes that come along with attending any college: independence from parents, figuring out your career (if you’re lucky), participating in extra curriculars, volunteering, applying for internships and doing internships, taking classes, making new friends (and keeping them or finding new friends again), and slowly evolving into a (relatively) functional adult. Oh, and one more thing if you’re at an Ivy League – add the pressure of going to an elite school and competing with your peers for highly coveted internships, jobs, club positions, and social status. There’s a thing called Penn Face (Duke calls their version Duck Face) where on the outside everything seems happy, sunny, and successful, but inside the student is struggling to keep up and questioning everything (Duke’s version: people seemingly glide along a surface and are doing well, but frantically peddling underneath). While it is known that Ivy League students are high-achieving, perhaps that’s the not the culture that Penn should be pressuring onto their students. Success is measured in other ways, and while it is important to achieve goals, it’s also important to slow down a little and be a human.  Or if a campus culture revolution is off the table, perhaps they should talk about mental health issues right from the start and foster an environment that acknowledges that you don’t have to be “perfect” to be successful. Penn has taken many strides to address the mental health issues on campus by offering more counselors, training for faculty and staff, and other resources; and they are at the forefront of violence prevention at the university level (issues that include: sexual assault, stalking, relationship violence, etc.). While I applaud my university for taking steps to address issues, I think that all universities need to take the steps to address that mental health is a serious issue, and that we need to erase the stigma associated with it. Penn can be better.

So, I called this post “Don’t Get It Twisted Tuesday” – so what don’t we want to get twisted? Well, in short…

  • suicide is caused by depression and a symptom of the condition
  • suicide is the number 2 cause of death for college students
  • depression manifests itself in different ways in people
  • depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues are not a choice and can appear at any time in life (see this video for perception), and could be brought on by a variety of things
  • there have been increases of suicides on university campuses despite increasing efforts to address issues by universities
  • I personally think that students need to be told that it’s okay to not be perfect or fit a mold, to not know what you want to do with your life, to question everything, that they are not alone, that life is worth living, and that you can get help
  • it’s okay to change your mind and take some time to figure out what you want out of life
  • we need to erase the stigma of mental health issues so that people do not feel pressured into hiding these issues and therefore encouraging more people to have those issues addressed and worked through

2013: Alice Wiley, Arya Singh

2014: Wendy Shung, Madison Holleran, Theodoric Reed, Elvis Hatcher, Amanda Hu

(7 suicides at Penn between 2013 and 2014)

2015: Timothy Hamlett

2016: Ao (Olivia) Kong

This post is dedicated to the students who were suffering and unable to get help and sought to end their lives too soon. I hope that if you are struggling, you have someone in your life that recognizes it and encourages you to seek help. Even if you don’t, if you think you are struggling, do not be afraid to ask for help – it is more than okay to do so. Below are some useful links and information.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (languages: English & Spanish; available 24/7/365)

Post Secret

Deconstruct the Penn Face & Update on the website going live

Mental Health Among Graduate Students

Graduate School’s Mental Toll

The Cost of Getting a PhD


News and Articles on the Topic


Personal Anecdote

When I was a high school senior and anxiously awaiting replies from the schools I applied to, I was nervous but not for the reasons you might immediately think of. Yes, I was waiting to hear back from my top choice, but it was not an Ivy League, rather a small liberal arts school located in rural Pennsylvania. However, I still felt the pressure of the Ivies – what if I did get into one of the Ivies I had applied to that both have notoriously low acceptance rates? I would have felt pressured to go to one of them even though my parents (lucky for me) did not pressure me one way or the other, because they are amazing schools even though I knew there would be a lot of pressure from peers to be uber successful and high-achieving. I fell in love with Juniata College when I visited campus, for a variety of reasons, and immediately became worried about my admission to the Ivy schools – how would I choose if I was offered admission? Luckily for me, the admissions committees made the decisions for me, and I was able to go to Juniata without a second thought (AKA Penn and Cornell said “sorry, kid, but no”). I was able to grow and learn in an environment encourages you to not be totally married to your schoolwork or have the perfect life – they want you to succeed and graduate in four years, yes BUT it is also a place where you can graduate with a degree in pottery and story telling. Sure, I had my little existential crisis – I had wanted to be a veterinarian but found the coursework awful. I struggled through organic chemistry twice – that awful class was my turning point AND my parents reaffirmed that it was okay to change my mind. I realized I was attracted to the environmental science classes my friend was taking and now here I am, 4 years later halfway through my Masters degree in Environmental Studies and hoping to move onto a PhD next year in wildlife ecology. I am a certified NABC bird bander, get to conduct my own research in my Masters program, have helped others with their field research through seasonal positions, and am feeling fulfilled in my field which has also become my passion. I was lucky to be told that it’s okay to change your mind, so I am here to say the same because I do not know where I would be if I was pressured otherwise. It’s okay to change your mind. It’s okay to explore your options. And a note on graduate school – it is not easy. Many folks I have talked to have likened graduate school to being married or having a child, and I cannot say that I disagree. If and when you search for graduate programs, make sure the school and program are the right fit, and that you “click” with your advisor if you have one. See the articles above on mental health issues at the graduate level.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s