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.


What Is Normal?

Luckily for you, today is not about delving into statistics and testing for normality in a data set. I’ve been unable to write a blog over the last week, because I found out about some happy news over the last few days that has kept me busy. I was accepted into the Society for Conservation Biology (SCBO) 4th Oceania Congress in Brisbane, Australia which will take place in July. Later that same day I found out about SCBO, I found out I was also accepted into the Mid-Atlantic Ecological Society of America (ESA) conference that will take place in April in Kutztown, PA. So, it’s been a busy week for me as I suddenly have to really kick it into gear to prep for these conferences. While I will definitely be able to go to the Mid-Atlantic ESA conference, the SCBO congress will be a different story. SCBO is $2,000 plane ticket plus associated travel costs. So, for a shameless plug, today I am going to talk a little bit about my research and include a link to my GoFundMe for the Brisbane conference. Maybe you will feel inclined to support an early-career female scientist? Any funding that I receive that does not directly cover the expenses of going to Australia for SCBO, will be donated to the Willistown Conservation Trust (WCT). WCT is the organization I am working with on my Masters capstone (thesis) work, and I am a volunteer bird bander for the Rushton Banding Station. WCT does amazing work, and I highly recommend checking out their website.

This equipment is a device for passively collecting data on the noises that bats produce during the night when they feed. Photo credit: Sarah Bouboulis
This equipment is a device for passively collecting data on the noises that bats produce during the night when they feed. Photo credit: S. B.

GoFundMe: Brisbane 2016

UPenn Bioblitz 2015

Since I am still in the middle of conducting research for my capstone (a.k.a. thesis) for my Masters degree, I’m not sure how much I can reveal about it. That being said, I will share what I’ve already told everyone else who will listen. I am conducting bioblitzes on a small-scale, organic farm located on Rushton Woods Preserve (RWP) in Chester County, Pennsylvania. The first bioblitz was conducted in June 2015, and two more will be conducted this year, one in June and one in September. Well, you may be wondering what a bioblitz is at this point, and I’m glad you asked! A bioblitz is a twenty-four hour intensive survey of the flora and fauna of a site that provides a snapshot of its biodiversity and can provide a baseline for future comparison. For the bioblitzes, the following taxa were surveyed: aquatic invertebrates, insects, birds, mammals (including bats), reptiles, amphibians, plants, and fungi. Unfortunately, I cannot reveal much more about the research due to its “in progress” status, but I am excited to continue on with it and can’t wait to see what this year’s surveys find.

Bioblitz volunteers check out the insect species attracted by the mercury lamp. Photo credit: Heather Kostick

If you know someone who would be interested in volunteering for any of the bioblitzes, please have them email