At 10 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 27, just three days before the University of Pennsylvania kicked off another school year’s classes, 40 or so students gathered in the green next to Harrison College House for wings, ice cream and sodas. They weren’t simply hanging out but rather there to talk to and learn about more than half a dozen mental-health groups on campus.
“Penn has already put a solid investment into mental health,” says senior Peter Moon, chair of Penn Wellness and co-president of Active Minds Penn, both represented at the event. “These resources already exist, and we just need to tell people they’re there. People walk through Penn not knowing about them. The more we can tell, the better.”
The late-night “Don’t Panic, Picnic” marks one of several such events that have already happened on campus this fall semester. Counseling and Psychological Services, often referred to as CAPS, held an ice cream social where students could drop by and ask questions. And undergrads participated in Chalk Out Stigma, a project that entailed writing positive messages on Locust Walk to coincide with World Suicide Prevention Day.
Mental health is top of mind for the Penn community.
Across the University, groups created by the institution itself and those shaped by its students offer support for the many issues along this continuum, from stress and anxiety to depression and suicide. It’s an area the school takes seriously, not just at the start of a new term but all the time.
“The student culture at Penn is very supportive, very collaborative,” says Rob Nelson, executive director for education and academic planning in the provost’s office.
Nelson is one of several Penn staff whose responsibilities include mental-health and wellness programming on campus. He works primarily with the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education and TableTalk, two of many student organizations that collaborate with administrators. These differ from the professional mental-health support offered through CAPS, as well as the Student Intervention Services and Student Health Service.
The aim is to foresee the types of help any one of the 10,000 or so undergraduates and 11,000-plus graduate students might need.
“There are all these multiple narratives,” says Hikaru Kozuma, associate vice provost for student affairs. “The challenge is to fine-tune our approach and our resources to be able to connect with students approaching mental health in different ways. There are a lot of different entrances to this house. Trying to figure out which door each student is going to use is a challenge.”
Sometimes the students know best how to assist each other, students like Roy Lan and Sophie Beren, both seniors. In the spring semester of 2015, Lan and several classmates began Penn Benjamins, a peer-counseling group for undergraduates that is named for University founder Ben Franklin, and around the same time Beren started the Penn chapter of TableTalk, which she co-runs with sophomore Jeremy Wilson. Each program offers different types of outlets for students.
Five nights a week, Penn Benjamins makes available two counselors for walk-in sessions in the first floor library of Harnwell College House or the Chaplain’s Office. The setting is casual, Lan explains, with coffee, tea and snacks, and meant for conversations big and small. The idea goes, there’s always someone to listen should a Penn undergrad need an ear. That said, the Penn Benjamins understand they are not licensed therapists.
“We never pretend to be professionals though we are trained,” Lan says. “We don’t offer any advice. We act as a feeder into other resources. If a student is too intimidated to speak to a professional but is more comfortable speaking to another student, that person can come to us.”
Counseling services from the Penn Benjamins began for the semester on Sept. 18. TableTalk held its inaugural fall event, CampusCouches, on the first day of classes.
On that day, TableTalk set up multiple inflatable sofas on College Green and invited anyone walking by to sit down and chat about anything, no strings attached. The group does often each semester.
“It’s one more forum,” Beren says, “a space for people to come together and talk.”
CampusCouches is one of four initiatives from the group, which aims to provide room for serious discussions among people who might not otherwise have them. Last semester, a mental-health TableTalk, also the name of one of the group’s programs, proved to be the best-attended event yet, with about 100 participants. The next, coming up in early October, focuses on sexual assault on college campuses.
These and the many other outlets at Penn are a reaction to the challenges colleges across the country face. According to the American College Health Association, nearly one-third of students at some point feel so depressed that their mental state impinges on their ability to function. That same organization notes that in the past year, more than 80 percent of college students were overwhelmed by their responsibilities.
“Mental health is everyone’s issue,” says Ben Bolnick, who graduated in May and who started Penn Wellness. “It’s not one person or one group.”
Bolnick recognized the range of resources on mental health at Penn but also noticed that, because they were decentralized, they were confusing and easily overlooked. Bolnick had begun a branch of Hillel called Hillel Wellness that offered running groups, yoga, meditation and a speaker series on health and wellbeing.
“As I spoke to more and more people, I realized it shouldn’t be just our community,” he says. “All communities could benefit from something like this.”
Today there exists Nursing Wellness, Wharton Wellness and other such groups at the University. Bolnick’s overarching initiative, Penn Wellness, kicked off in 2015 and is now run by Moon. It has a steering committee of representatives from more than 30 diverse groups around campus that meets twice a month to discuss projects and update a central calendar and website. Committee members also work closely with Nelson and campus administration.
“Everybody has mental health just like they have physical health,” says Bolnick, who in August became Penn’s student wellness communications coordinator. “Penn has a culture of maximizing and filling the nooks and crannies of every moment. This high pressure, work-hard-play-hard mentality definitely takes its toll.”
But students at Penn have options to deal with the stresses, as long as they know where to look.
A complete list of what’s offered on campus appears on the Penn Wellness Resources page.