Penn Dean Reveals Third Student Suicide Since End of Last Semester

News comes as the university’s mental health system is under scrutiny.

In the wake of the high-profile suicides of Penn students Madison Holleran and Elvis Hatcher, Philadelphia magazine has learned that a third university student had committed suicide since the end of last semester. Dean Richard James Gelles of the university’s School of Social Policy and Practice said he made no announcement through the university because he believes in the “privacy concerns of the family … and the possibility of contagion.”

While Gelles would not reveal the name of the student, he says he is revealing the suicide out of concern for student welfare.

The unnamed social policy graduate student, who committed suicide off campus over semester break, can now be added to the list of Penn students who recently committed suicide, including Holleran, a freshman who took her life on Jan. 17, and Hatcher, a sophomore who killed himself just weeks later.





“I think though that we need to be mindful of our students and their mental health,” said Gelles. “Mental health is a serious issue on every campus and Penn has a unique set of challenges. These are kids who are used to being the absolute best, and they get here and they’re surrounded, in a very competitive environment, by other kids who are accomplishing at least as much, if not more, and we need to respond to that.”

Dr. T.J. Ghose, a professor in the School of Social Policy and Practice, says he agrees with the Dean’s decision not to name the student. But says that, “as the university community responds to these suicides, the fact that there was a third student, who was one of our own, is important to acknowledge, so that can be part of the conversation.”

Suicide researchers say the data shows that suicide tends to occur in clusters, and that publicity surrounding suicides can spark further attempts by people already suffering from suicidal thoughts, particularly among the young, leading to Gelles’ fear of “contagion.”

Penn administrators responded to the deaths of Holleran and Hatcher by convening a mental health task force. That effort has fallen under criticism for failing to include students as participants.

Penn is also facing severe criticism for understaffing at CAPS, the student mental health services provider. According to a story published Wednesday in the student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, students sometimes have to wait for a month or five weeks to see a counselor.

Several students, who wished to remain anonymous because of the stigma surrounding mental health care, have made the same claims about long waits at CAPS to me.

Gelles says the issue is one of awareness — of mental health issues, throughout society, and for Penn, the particular challenge faced by its student population.

“These schools are so difficult to get into,” he says. “An A- isn’t good enough. Second violin isn’t good enough. Going to China isn’t good enough. You have to live with a native family and learn to speak Mandarin. You can’t make a mistake. And so you get here, and you’ve never made a mistake, and being the best all your life earns you a spot in the middle here. It’s tough for an 18-year-old brain to take, and I think we have to create room for experimentation, for people to not feel that they have to be perfect. That ought to be across your whole life.”

As of press time, Penn had not responded to a request for comment.

For confidential support if you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Learn about the warning signs of suicide at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

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  • Wolfy Ghalkhani

    Too much pressure and not enough support. Kids definitely get lost in the mass crunch of humanity at big universities. They feel like a number, and they aren’t used to that. they want life to be like it was in high school and that can never be. Parents, professors and adults in general should stress that getting a C or B is not the end of the world. Doing the best you can is what matters.
    The loss of such precious life that this nation can ill afford is heart rendering. I pray for their families.

    • Laura

      Who says their suicides had anything to do with school/ academics/perfectionism? Suicide is an incredibly complex issue, & I doubt that a campus taskforce or more counselors in the counseling center will be the answer. Suicide happens in the larger society, and it has been around since the beginning of time. It is no one’s fault. It is simply a choice that someone makes when they feel like they are out of good options. It’s called self determination.

      • penn graduate

        Who says their suicides had anything to do with school? You are clearly not very educated about what has been going on at Penn. Madison Holleran’s death was directly caused by academic stress (this is coming from statements made by her family). And also, you doubt that more counselors in the counseling center would help? You do know that at Penn there is sometimes a 2-3 month waiting time to see a psychologist if you are depressed? They are EXTREMELY understaffed. Unless you say you are suicidal, then of course they see you right away. Multiple students have stated that the long waiting time directly contributed to their suicidal thoughts while at Penn. Also, your statement “it’s called self determination” is very ignorant and offensive.

        • ANONYMOUS

          Let’s be honest here. The wait time to receive services is difficult in MOST access points to psychological services. This is a problem experienced throughout the City of Philadelphia and the Nation. No one should have to wait exorbitant amounts of time to receive important and critical help, not just privileged students. I agree with the statement made earlier about there being a mental health crisis in this country. Until we ensure that ALL people have access to quality, affordable mental health care, these kind of events will continue to devastate communities. We also have much work to do as a society regarding the stigma of seeking mental health services in the first place.

        • pete

          Her death may have been attributed to grades as a symptom, but grades were not the reason someone jumps from a roof to have their loved ones saddled with the image of their baby busted up on a sidewalk forever.
          Sadly, there were larger issues she was unable to deal with. A counselor may, or may not have been able to help.
          I wish there were easy answers.

  • Jennifer Robnett

    This happened at my HIGHSCHOOL; 5 classmates killed themselves before graduation. One tends to set off a rash of them and I doubt this has to do with a failure on student health service’s part.
    Remember, most people determined to kill themselves are veritable masters of hiding their illness. They don’t seek out help; thats the point.
    Regardless, very sad news.

    • penn graduate

      That is a very common misconception about people who are suicidal. Most suicidal people do seek help and do reach out to others for help. Madison had told her family that she was suicidal, and she was seeing a counselor. Her father had told her she needed to see her counselor the DAY she committed suicide, and she had told him that she would… Also, it DOES have to do with a failure on student health service’s part. When I was at Penn, at one point I was extremely depressed and borderline suicidal. I sought help at student health, but was told to wait 4-5 weeks because they did not have any appointments until then. Luckily my parents were able to pay for me to see a psychologist who was not affiliated with Penn. But the reality is that the majority of students at Penn do not have this option. Who knows what would have happened if my parents had not been able to pay for me to see a private psychologist. Penn is an extremely wealthy school; the fact that their psychological counseling service has a waiting list that can run 2-3 months is unacceptable and this is why Penn is looking into expanding the number of counselors they provide for students… this move is LONG overdue. Very sad that it took the pressure from multiple student suicides to force them to look at changing their system.

      • Jennifer Robnett

        oof, interesting info. a backlog of 4-5 weeks is no bueno.
        but everyone in my school who killed themself gave no indication. they were all “model” students–one girl was the daughter of a respected local politician and an avid member of a rugby team/military service group.
        neshaminy high school suicides. google it.
        or better yet
        http://www.phillymag.com/articles/mystery-deadly-lessons/

  • anonymous

    There is a national Mental Health crisis in this country. PENN is no different than other ivys, however their response could be! PHILADELPHIA is one of the leading cities in the country to introduce MENTAL HEALTH FIRST AID, an international curriculum to teach the general public about mental health problems and how to help someone who may be having crisis – such as suicidal thought. Check out http://www.healthymindsphilly.org to learn more about it. I personally took the course, used the tools to help a friend who was suicidal – it works!!

  • Penn student

    Good way to stop this ridiculousness: Put in some more grade inflation. Look at Harvard or Yale, they curve their classes (even sciences ones) to an A-. Nowhere near as many suicides as us. Ours get curved to a B-…while filled with the top students… and this is the end result.