To the Penn community: It’s time we address this crisis together

We cannot afford to wait

Earlier this week, a petition surfaced urging Penn administration to address mental health reform on campus. Carly O’Donnell ’18 signed the petition and wrote this response.

More than 24 hours have passed and the only emotion that has ebbed even slightly is my profound, cold shock. I am just as hurt, angry and confused as when I first read the email sent out by President Gutmann at 2:22pm Monday. My heart breaks for Olivia’s family, friends and classmates. Yet another life taken far too soon. I cannot fathom your pain. I am so sorry.

I have never met Olivia, but I feel compelled to speak out about an issue that is so obviously prevalent at Penn, as well as at other universities and institutions across the nation. I feel as though remaining silent makes me culpable.

Eleven suicides in three years. Heartbreaking. A pattern that sheds light on a deadly phenomenon occurring on our very own campus.

In my almost two years at Penn, I have become quite aware of “Penn-Face”— a term for the deceptive façade that students use daily to conceal all perceived imperfections. “I’m doing great, how about you?” “Everything is fine!” “Yeah I go out and still do well in my classes. Doesn’t everyone?” We as a community are, to an extent, responsible for perpetuating this culture of apparent perfection. Showing weakness or inadequacy is shunned, even if only internally. Talking about this—acknowledging it for the problem that it is—is a step in the right direction.

But we are not entirely to blame for this culture. I am profoundly disappointed in the actions of the administration here at Penn. People take their own lives for a variety of complex reasons – you can never pin the blame on one factor or cause, but I believe we have a problem here at Penn that we need to fix.

Why, when I read the announcement this week, did I immediately panic and have to search the internet to see if I personally knew this nameless junior? Why, in a separate email sent to Wharton, was this tragic suicide described as an “accident?” Why did more than 24 hours pass without any amendment to this statement? Why did my professor ask us how we were doing this the following morning and then, in response to the class’s stony silence, make a joke about the stormy weather affecting our moods (yet make no mention of Olivia)? Why are school activities continuing normally as though no tragedy has occurred? As though another suicide is just part of the norm here?

Why, more generally, are professors banned from teaching classes if they give out too many As? Why are students expected to sacrifice sleep and health for grades? Why is it no longer shocking to hear that someone hasn’t slept for more than three hours in a night for two weeks or more? Why must the waiting room in CAPS be a completely open space where eye-contact between friends and peers must actively be avoided?

Why, to even get an appointment, do you need to empty your heart and soul to a nameless voice on the other end of a phone-call? Why do we not have access to long-term counseling on campus? Why, at CAPS, are the only psychologists available on short-term rotation so that once you’ve established a relationship with them, they leave? Why are the only long-term therapy options available located in Center City for a weekly $30 copay (assuming your health insurance even covers it)?

This tragedy has reminded me of an incident that happened to one of my friends this past summer when she reached out to CAPS in the midst of a serious personal crisis. After scheduling a next-day appointment, she met with one of the CAPS rotation students who told her that they could meet for five weeks before she’d be moving on to her next rotation.

She would also need to consent to having her sessions videotaped because, like the other rotation students, this one did not yet have her license. My friend, who wishes to remain anonymous, consented to all of this and felt that she benefited greatly from the sessions. At the end of the five weeks, the therapist referred her to another rotation student at CAPS who she highly recommended. After being connected to this new therapist by email, my friend sent the following email on July 16, 2015:

CAPS Conversation


A week passed with no response. On July 23rd, my friend sent another email:

CAPS Conversation

Later that day, the new therapist responded:

CAPS Conversation2

After finally meeting with the new therapist, my friend was completely discouraged. It was a short appointment and it was almost impossible to schedule an additional one for the future. She felt dismissed and uncomfortable. By the time the therapist was available again, classes had resumed and she had no weekly availability except during my friend’s classes.

So, finally, my friend gave up, deciding that CAPS was doing her more harm than good. Unprofessional, damaging, and dangerous. I fear that this is not an isolated incident. After taking to social media to express my heartbreak over Olivia’s suicide, I received an overwhelming number of messages from people I had never previously met—Penn students, alumni, and parents.

Some did so not just to stand in solidarity, but also to share their own stories and their own pain. They shared their experiences struggling to stay afloat while being weighted down by extreme depression. They shared their concerns over the well-being of their children now freshmen and sophomores at Penn. They shared their deep sadness over the preventable death of yet another young, promising, bright life. They shared how they could see themselves and their loved ones in Olivia. How could anyone say that this is just an isolated event? A normal part of university life?

I have so many questions and have no idea where to go to have them answered. But I am tired. I am tired of remaining silent while I watch my friends and classmates continue to suffer. I am tired of hearing of new programs and surveys that do nothing to actually initiate positive change. I am tired of internalizing my anger and sadness and pretending that everything is fine. Everything is NOT fine and it is time that both the students and administration of Penn DO something about it.

We CANNOT afford to wait until another student takes his or her life. We cannot passively wait for change to occur. We must take it into our own hands to address a systemic issue that we face every day, and the first step is speaking up and reaching out. Hug your friends. Tell them how much you care about them, how much you love them, how invaluable they are. Let this newest death be a wakeup call that will prevent further tragedies.

To Amy Gutmann and the rest of our administration here at Penn: stop ignoring the problem. Nobody is saying that the culture we have here is the sole cause of depression and suicide, but it is certainly a contributing factor that can lead to an irrevocable tipping point. Stop glossing over it in emails, statements, and programs that are meant to placate and not to fix. The cost is too great.

Rest in peace Olivia.

UPenn: Penn